Britain's Olympians are happy to build medal hopes on sand

Iwan Thomas and Steve Redgrave are leading the praise for an idyllic beach training base 500 miles from Sydney. By Kathy Marks in Surfers Paradise
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WITH THE Olympic Games less than 12 months away, the minds of British athletes are focused not on Sydney but on a strip of beach 500 miles to the north famous for its theme parks, glitzy nightlife and skyscraper holiday resorts.

WITH THE Olympic Games less than 12 months away, the minds of British athletes are focused not on Sydney but on a strip of beach 500 miles to the north famous for its theme parks, glitzy nightlife and skyscraper holiday resorts.

For if Britain leaves the 2000 Olympics with its head held high, it will be in no small measure due to the sweat and tears shed at a training camp recently set up on the Gold Coast in Queensland by the British Olympic Association.

This is where competitors will spend their last critical three weeks before the Games and, since they need little persuading of the virtues of rehearsal, 165 athletes from 16 sports have just come out to Australia to undertake a dry run at a similar time of year.

The camp's location is not a snub to Sydney, where the Olympic facilities are generally held to be superlative. But BOA officials have decided that the best plan is to avoid the hurly burly of the Olympic village for as long as possible, and some athletes may choose to remain on the Gold Coast until as late as two days before their event.

It is a fair bet that the village will be even more of a pressure cooker than usual, if the run-up to the Games is anything to judge by. For sports- mad Australia is captivated by every cough and spit of the preparations; even before the bulldozers moved in to Homebush Bay, the site of Olympic Park, tour buses would bring Sydneysiders to gaze at the land earmarked for such temples of sport as Stadium Australia. By next September the level of public and media interest will be phenomenal.

The current trip by British athletes gives them an opportunity to spend a month road-testing the facilities at the training camp, and to acquaint themselves with the perils of competing on the other side of the world: a 24-hour flight, fatigue and jetlag, followed by a recovery time of up to nine days, plus a nine-hour time difference with Britain and a decidedly warmer climate.

As far as the facilities are concerned, the perennial complaint that British sport is under-resourced does not, for once, apply. Three years ago the Gold Coast City Council in Surfers Paradise signed a contract with the BOA to build or upgrade its sports facilities to meet the needs of the Olympic team. The result is that British athletes have exclusive 24-hour access to, among other things, a 50m outdoor swimming pool, a spanking new eight-lane athletics track and a regatta course that is the envy of the international rowing fraternity.

So far there has been undiluted enthusiasm from visiting athletes and their coaches, both for the facilities and for the accommodation base at a local sports resort, the Radisson Palm Meadows, which will also serve as medical centre and BOA headquarters before the Games.

Max Jones, athletics performance director, who visited the Gold Coast with three athletes - the 400m runner Iwan Thomas, high jumper Dalton Grant and long jumper Ashia Hansen - says he cannot find fault with the set-up for track and field. "We're happy that this is the right place to train to produce a peak performance," Jones says.

Keeping away from Sydney will maximise Britain's medal prospects, he believes. "The athletes will have done 11 months of training by the time they get to Australia, so the priority will be to prepare themselves psychologically. The last thing you want to do is go into the Olympic village and have all the stresses and strains and hype. Ideally you go into the village a few days beforehand, when you can get a lift from it and a buzz."

One of Britain's best hopes is 25-year-old Thomas, a silver medallist at the Atlanta Games who, after the euphoria of being crowned World Cup champion in 1998, was forced to miss this season because of an ankle injury - a "devastating" turn of events, he says. But the trip to the Gold Coast has sharpened his appetite for the start of his winter training next week. "When it's cold back in Britain and the training's tough, I'll be able to remember why I'm doing all that hard work," he says.

Grant, 33, was also obliged to watch from the sidelines this season - in his case as British team captain - because of a knee injury. The Commonwealth Games and European Cup gold medallist has just resumed training. "Coming here has given me inspiration," he says. "Now I just want to get out there and compete."

The Gold Coast was chosen as a training base after rival bids from several Australian cities, including Melbourne, which tried to woo the BOA by sending a delegation to the 1996 pre-Atlanta camp at Tallahassee, Florida. Other Olympic teams have spotted the merits of the Gold Coast, too; athletes from more than a dozen countries, including Germany, Italy and Canada, plan to train there before Sydney.

The BOA camp is not a campus; the facilities are sprinkled around the area, although all are within a short radius of the Radisson. The beach volleyball centre is at Kurrawa Surf Life Saving Club, for instance, while Nerang Police Citizens Youth Club is playing host to the boxers, who include the hulking Commonwealth Games gold medallist Audley Harrison.

The highlight, without a doubt, is an artificial lake at the Hinze Dam, a 20-minute drive inland. At this tranquil beauty spot, David Tanner, rowing performance director, persuaded Gold Coast authorities to build a course that he calls "perfect". So perfect, in fact, that the Australian rowing team asked to use it, only to be told that the British had got there first.

Tanner says he has found the "can-do culture" of the Australians refreshing. The British Rowing Association has been pushing for a similar course to be built at home for the past 10 years.

Steve Redgrave, 37, aiming for his fifth Olympic gold medal in Sydney - which would be a record for any sport - went training at the Hinze Dam on Sunday, his first time back on the water since winning gold at the World Championships in Canada.

The man who swore he would never go near a boat again after Atlanta - then swiftly changed his mind - predicts that Sydney will be "the best Games ever". He agrees that he will be under a lot of pressure from British fans to win that fifth medal, "but no more than I put on myself".

Matthew Pinsent, Redgrave's long-term partner, is brimming with confidence. He rates their chances of striking gold in Sydney at "on a scale of one to 10, nine and a half".

All the athletes are enjoying the warm, balmy early spring weather on the Gold Coast. The temperature in Sydney is similar, and will be welcome after the crippling heat of Atlanta.

Swimmer James Hickman, gold medallist in the 200m butterfly at this year's World Short Course Championships, extols the "feel-good factor" of training outside. "When you're swimming in the morning and the sun's just coming up, you think, 'yes, this is what I want to do, this is cool'. At Leeds International Pool, with the fluorescent lights, it's not quite the same."