Carry on campus in rush for gold

FIRST NIGHT: BATH SPORTS UNIVERSITY; At last elite competitors have success in their grasp. Alan Hubbard reports
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THE SIGN at the entrance to the University of Bath's sports village reads: "Sydney 2000 - not just being there, winning there". Alongside, an electronic message board reminds the athletes who pass through the doors how many days there are to the start of the next Olympic Games. Today that number is exactly 479.

Among the competitors counting those days is Paul Palmer, the swimmer who won a silver medal in Atlanta and then sparked something of a peasants' revolt by declaring that the British system was failing potential champions because of a lack of money and facilities that would be sniffed at in the Third World. "We've been second-class citizens for years," he said. "If we had the money we could turn silver medals into gold."

If the British public really wanted more gold medals, it would have to pay for them, he added. Britain had endured a miserable Olympics. The Atlanta Games were four days old before Palmer became the first competitor from this country to step on to the podium. The 229 seconds it took for him to earn second place in the 400 metres freestyle changed his life. Had he not acquired that medal he would have been forced to retire because of financial hardship. It actually cost his coach, Ian Turner, some pounds 15,000 in lost wages, because he gave up his teaching job for six months to help Palmer achieve his potential. Once again the recurring deficiency of British sport had been emphatically underlined. Palmer and Turner had embraced success despite the system rather than because of it.

Fortunately Palmer's eloquent and timely plea did not go unnoticed. Someone up there in Westminster - at the time it was John Major - decided that sport and government needed to get their act together. Another dismal Olympics in Sydney seemed inevitable unless something was done. Astonishingly it was.

Palmer and Turner, both from Lincoln, are now together at Bath which has become in effect the first spoke in the Lottery-funded wheel of fortune designed to make Britain a big player again on the world stage. Major's proposed Academy of Excellence has been redrafted by New Labour as the UK Sports Institute, a 10-centre network of which Bath is now up and running as the prototype.

For Palmer, 24, it is proving something of a sporting Valhalla after the damningly familiar struggles pre-Atlanta. "Absolutely brilliant," he says. "At last we have got everything we need and access to whatever we want. The whole thing has been designed with the elite competitor in mind."

There are now 50 such elite performers at Bath who have been absorbed into the 7,800-strong community. Palmer is one of the 14 strong swimming squad, which also includes Mark Foster, Andy Clayton and Sarah Collings, all training under Turner. Ten of the squad are expected to make the Olympics and eight are potential finalists.

The 50-metre pool is one of the few - and certainly amongst the best - in the country. The university also has a new state-of-the-art gymnasium and the running track is used by a number of athletics luminaries, headed by the world 110 metres hurdles record holder Colin Jackson.

Malcolm Arnold, formerly Britain's national coach, has been recruited by Bath as head athletics coach and the university is also the training base for Britain's Olympic bobsleigh team. It also has a flourishing tennis centre, whose coach is the Lawn Tennis Association's Simon Jones. In all 15 sports, embracing badminton, judo, gymnastics and the triathlon are making it their Olympic home, and in September they will be joined by a dozen disabled athletes training alongside them for the Paralympics.

Most of the elite competitors, including Palmer and Jackson, now live in Bath, some at houses on the university campus, and all spend part of their training with other students and local youngsters who are encouraged to use the university's facilities to which, it is hoped, an indoor running track is about to be added.

It is the nearest Britain now has to the American collegiate system and Bath is rapidly establishing itself as the country's premier sports university. A sort of Sorbonne of sport. Chris Smith, Secretary of State at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, sees it as a role model for other regional centres.

"What we are experiencing here is just fantastic. The fact that there are a whole host of elite athletes from a range of sports training together makes you feel more professional. We are all part of the team," says Palmer.

Team Bath in fact. That's what 36-year-old Jed Roddy, Bath's sports director calls the campus contingent, 13 of whom won medals in last year's Commonwealth Games. His hope is for five in Sydney. Manchester-born Roddy, a former PE teacher, semi-pro footballer and Bath rugby coach - he worked alongside Jack Rowell - is the power behind Bath's burgeoning glory. "One of sport's true visionaries," says Tony Banks, the Minister for Sport.

It was Roddy who three months ago envisaged Bath's potential, bringing top coaches and competitors to the university. He agrees there are similarities with the US system but says: "We have also borrowed from the Australians and the French but underpinning it all is something essentially British. We must never forget it was the British educational system 100 years ago which brought modern sport to the world and the British university system expanded it, through Oxford and Cambridge.

"In the past 20 years, university sport here has been outside the mainstream. We have tried to change the agenda for the benefit of sport and students. If you talk about football coming home, then sport is coming home, back into the university system. Over half the British team in Sydney will be in some form of higher education. It is a very British response to the need to be successful.

"I'd like to think that what we are doing is providing additional and aspiring international athletes with the best possible environment and the best coaches, together with educational opportunities."

However Roddy is aware that with Bath it is a case of sink or swim as far as Olympic results are concerned, which is why he urges us not to get too carried away. "We are really at the embryonic stage," he says. "The danger is that people will look at what we have got and say, 'That's pretty good'. We are still a long way off what other countries have." Bath's existing facilities have cost around pounds 6m, some of it Lottery funded.

How much they should receive as their full Lottery bounty as a network site - and when - is the pounds 10m, or perhaps even pounds 20m, question. "The real challenge is developing the infrastructure for the years after Sydney," says Roddy. "We need that funding soon to build up the programme."

Such is the impact on sport down in the West Country that some foreign athletes are even popping over to see how it is done. There is certainly a healthy feeling of optimism and enthusiasm in Bath's balmy air. You can sense that, with a little luck, and a lot more Lottery cash, British sport might actually get it right. Of course much now depends on promises being kept. It would be a tragedy indeed if all the noble intentions were to end up being emptied out with the Bath water.