Academy shortlist reduced to three

Mike Rowbottom reports on the front-runners in race for funding
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Three contenders emerged yesterday as potential hosts of the proposed British Academy of Sport after a shortlist of 13 was reduced to bids from Sheffield, Upper Heyford and the Central Consortium, based on Loughborough and Nottingham.

A final decision is expected by April, but Labour's shadow minister for sport, Tom Pendry, immediately undermined the whole process by saying that in the event of winning the election, his party could not guarantee to back any selection made.

Pendry accused the minister with responsibility for sport, Iain Sproat, of having "ridden roughshod over all sensible opinion," adding: "As Labour has not been involved in the important decisions regarding the Academy, we cannot commit ourselves to supporting a chosen bid. Instead, we will instigate a thorough review of all proceedings and decisions involved."

In naming what is effectively the short shortlist for the Academy - the original choice of 26 was whittled down by half before Christmas - Sproat said the three "impressive" bids left have been chosen after detailed discussion between the United Kingdom Sports Council and the Government.

With remarkable synchronisation, all three bidders said they were "absolutely delighted" to have seen off their 10 immediate rivals - Bath, Birmingham, Kent Thameside, Manchester, Merseyside, The Athletes Bid, (Herts), De Montfort University (Leics), Houghton Grange (Huntingdon), Sport City Foundation (Kettering) and UK Academy 2000 (East Yorks).

Of the three final contenders, two - the Central Consortium and Sheffield - have large sporting facilities already in place, while the Upper Heyford bid, centred on the 140-acre site of the disused US Air Force airbase in the Cotswolds, and backed by the British Olympic Association, has a huge administrative centre ready made.

The bidding criteria for the Academy included provision for 18 key sports, including football, athletics, cricket, rugby, cycling, hockey and sailing. Up to pounds 100m of Lottery money is available for capital costs.

The concept of a central academy to support elite athletes in the 21st century was based on similar facilities already in place in countries such as France, Germany and Australia. But the original notion of a huge central facility has altered over the last year, and one of the Academy's key roles, according to the project co-ordinator, Roger Moreland, will be "monitoring and co-ordinating a system of elite support."

By that measure, the Upper Heyford bid appears well favoured, given the BOA's experience in liaising with individual governing bodies.

Last summer, the BOA canvassed 33 governing bodies over their hopes for an academy. "Based on that information," a spokeswoman said, "we have pulled together what we feel is a very, very strong bid. Americans being Americans, they don't do things by halves and the majority of the buildings on site are in superb condition. All sporting facilities will be built as new." The bid is likely to require between pounds 80m and pounds 90m of Lottery money, which will be matched by the bidders with pounds 75m and pounds 80m.

Sheffield's bid is likely to require pounds 68m in capital costs. Some pounds 150m has already been spent on facilities such as the Don Valley Athletic Stadium, the Sheffield Arena and Ponds Forge swimming pool. "We believe we have got a head start," their spokesman said.

The Sheffield bidders have also been encouraged by the recent award of a pounds 12m Sports Council grant - the biggest single grant in its history - towards a national ice centre next to Sheffield Arena.

The Central Consortium are basing their hopes on a bid which draws on established sporting facilities including Loughborough University, the University of Nottingham, the Queen's Medical Centre, the National Sailing and Canoeing centre at Holme Pierrepont, and Lilleshall, home to the Football Association school of excellence and British gymnastics.

"We have got existing facilities and expertise," a spokesman said. "But we are not just looking at giving them a lick of paint, we are planning a pounds 150m development."

Once the site of the Academy has been established, plans will go ahead to create a network of regional centres and facilities dedicated to specific sports, or elements of athletes' support such as biomechanics.

Those bids, which have missed out on securing the Academy, such as Manchester, Birmingham and Sports City Foundation, have been encouraged to tender for one of the smaller centres.