Athletics: Bath's model environment for elite athletes

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The Independent Online
Britain's former chief coach, Malcolm Arnold, is buying a house in Bath. So is Colin Jackson, the 110m hurdles world record holder. Mike Rowbottom finds out why.

There is a sign which greets every competitor who enters the pounds 6m Sports Training Village at Bath University: "Sydney Olympics 2000. Will you be there?"

Yesterday's launch of an elite athletics programme at the university confirmed that Colin Jackson will be among those getting a regular view of this written challenge.

Jackson is relocating from Cardiff to work more closely with his coach, Malcolm Arnold, who recently left his job as the performance director for British athletics to assume charge of the new programme at Bath.

And Jackson's response to the Olympic question is an unequivocal "yes".

As far as the 30-year-old former world champion is concerned, what is happening to him now feels like a fresh start after a period of time when his enthusiasm for the sport hit an all-time low.

"Mentally, I feel like I am returning after two years off," he said. "In a way, it has extended my career."

The roots of Jackson's disillusionment lay in the events of 1995, when he was one of several top athletes, including Linford Christie, who were in dispute with the British Athletic Federation over appearance fees. In Jackson's case, there was a big row with the then head of the BAF, Peter Radford, after which Jackson vowed never to run in Britain again.

It was a measure of Jackson's disillusionment that he had an operation two months ago to remove cartilage in his knee which had been troubling him for nearly two years.

"It should have been done 18 months ago," he said. "But when I got injured again, I thought: `It doesn't matter. I don't have that much of a care for the sport any more'. Getting it done was a big positive sign for me."

The 1996 Olympics were a disappointment, but he roused himself to earn an unexpected silver medal at this summer's World Championships.

His Athens performance was a reaction to a set of circumstances which left him facing the same problems. He has responded in two ways.

He no longer has a connection with Nuff Respect, the marketing company he set up with Christie, because he says it was taking up too much of his mental energy.

And he has now realigned himself on a permanent basis with the coach who guided his career from its earliest days.

"I had a number of facilities available in Cardiff, but the main problem was that I didn't have my coach there," Jackson said. "It is difficult when you are training on your own - even though you can follow a specific programme you are not sure whether you are doing things right.

"I have always wanted to be part of something like this, which is being developed along the same lines as colleges in the United States, where all your requirements - track, weights, sports medicine - are in the same place."

Jackson is one of four athletes so far recruited to what will be an elite group of 12 at the facility, which was funded by the National Lottery and commercial sponsorship. The others are sprint hurdler Jacqui Agyepong, Allison Curbishley, the 21-year-old who is attempting to fill the gap Sally Gunnell has left in 400m hurdles, and Ian Mackie, the British 100m champion.

Also taking advantage of the facilities is 18-year-old Tatum Nelson, ranked in the top four European juniors at 100m, who is studying for a BSc in Sociology alongside her athletics training.

Bath was unsuccessful in its bid to become the site for Britain's proposed National Academy of Sport, but is awaiting an invitation to become one of the main regional satellites within the new framework.

It has already put itself on the sporting map by hosting the 1995 Youth Olympics and, in the last year, providing a base for the national swimming coach, Ian Turner, and six Olympic swimmers, including silver medallist Paul Palmer.

If Bath can work for the athletes like it has worked for Palmer, then everyone will be happy. "Being here has dramatically changed everything for me," said Palmer, who added two golds and a bronze to his collection at the European Championships this year.

Back home in Lincolnshire, the 23-year-old was having to get up to train at 6am in a 25m school swimming pool, in order to avoid the children who populated it during the day. Things have now changed. "The public have to fit in with us at the pool we have here," he said. "I can train at any time I want to."

The athletics programme is being set up in the same way as the swimming, encompassing all levels from the elite down to a scheme for talented youngsters. As a model, it echoes those pioneered in eastern Europe 20 years ago, as Palmer acknowledges. "It's like East Germany without the drugs," he said.