Olympic Games: Britain counts on magic of Disney

Olympic Games: Fantastic Four show benefits of high-tech facilities as golden hopes of the future flourish in Florida

IF THE Fantastic Four sound like Disney characters, then it is partly because they are. Their names will not be familiar (yet), but attending a warm-weather training camp in Florida could change all that.

Mark Lewis-Francis, aged 16, is the fastest man in the world of his age over 100 metres. Nathan Palmer, also 16, is already breaking records set by Britain's No 1 hurdler, Colin Jackson. The self-styled Four - they each don a single blue glove to signal their allegiance to self-belief - are completed by Tim Benjamin, (a prospect over 200m) and Aaron Evans (400m), and were just a quartet among 110 of the country's brightest young sporting hopes to spend 10 days at the British Airways Olympic Futures camp in Orlando.

The young sportsmen and women, ranging from 12 to 18 and representing the cream of British athletics, swimming, cycling, judo, gymnastics, basketball and badminton, were put through their paces in an environment that British sporting heroes of the past could only have dreamt about. "I wish this type of project had been available when I was 13 or 14. It would've made such a difference," Sharron Davies, the Olympic medal-winner and "camp mother" to this next generation of hopefuls, said during a break in her motivational duties in Florida last month.

"The kids at the camp learn that their problems are the same as everyone else's, whether it's their schoolwork or training or money problems," she added of one benefit of bringing together such a group. Another benefit, Davies added, was that by being nurtured in a professional environment, the chances of burn-out and disillusionment could be diminished. Of her own Olympic triumph - winning silver in the 400m individual medley at the 1980 Games - she added: "When I looked at the board in Moscow all I thought was not `I've won a silver medal' but `great, now I can give up'."

Experiences such as Davies', the British Olympic Association hopes, may now become a thing of the past, and the first fruits of the camp could come as soon as July, when a number of those attending will form the backbone of the Great Britain team being sent to the European Youth Olympic Days (the youth Olympics) in Esbjerg in Denmark. Steve Backley and Dwain Chambers used past EYOD successes as springboards to greater things, and the BOA hopes that those competing this summer will make similar progress, if not in time for next year's Sydney Olympics, then in time for Athens in 2004.

The aims of the three BAOF camps - the first took place for winter sports athletes last year at Crystal Palace and the third will take place ahead of next year's Millennial Games - are simple; to give young British sportsmen and women access to multi-sports facilities and give them a taste of what it might be like to compete in major events. While that might sound a modest ambition, it is actually a minor revolution. None of the 110 youngsters had ever trained at a warm-weather camp prior to travelling to Orlando, and none had experienced anything close to the range of facilities they found when they got there. "For many of them, it's the first time they've been in a multi-sport environment. It's important they get used to being in camp situations," Mark Howell of the BOA, said. "The fact is that if BA [putting pounds 350,000 into the project] weren't sponsoring it, it wouldn't be happening. That's something that needs to be addressed by the government."

For a nation that supposedly cherishes its sporting idols, Britain is some way behind its competitors in providing the necessary facilities to achieve its goals. If nothing else, the tally of just 49 British Olympic post-war gold medals (the US has won well over 500, more than twice as many per head) speaks volumes. Most of the swimmers who attended the Orlando camp train in 25-metre pools at home (there are only a handful of 50-metre pools in the country) and have to get up well before 6am for the privilege. The gymnasts often train in halls that bear no resemblance to competition surroundings. The cyclists and track and field athletes have to suffer the inclement British climate, and few of the 110 who went to Orlando are able to train as often as they would like because travelling every day to appropriate facilities is impractical.

The main training centre at the Disney Wide World of Sport (which the senior Olympic squad uses regularly), has a first-class track, an enormous complex of gyms and weights rooms, its own baseball stadium and a velodrome (bought wholesale from the Atlanta Olympics), not to mention a 50-metre swimming pool and specialist medical facilities a stone's throw away, and fine weather. For the duration of the camp, the BOA also provided the participants with workshops on nutrition, sports psychology, physiology, career development and working with the media.

Whether all this will actually pay dividends remains to be seen, but the coaching staff at the camp are adamant that it can do nothing but good. "These youngsters need to realise how good they are," Brian Hall, the athletics team director, said. "It's hard to make them realise that they're the best young athletes in Britain and that they are the future," he added, and said that by treating them as such was one way to help realise their potential.

In Tokyo in 1964, before Disney had even laid a foundation brick in Florida, Britain had a fantastic four gold medallists in Lynn Davies and Mary Rand (both long jump), Ann Packer (800m) and Ken Matthews (20km walk). Perhaps, when we realise that investing in our sporting future is no Mickey Mouse endeavour, future Games will see similar rewards and better.

SIX YOUNG MEDAL HUNTERS TO FOLLOW ON THE ROAD FROM ORLANDO

MOHAMMED FARAH

16-year-old athlete

3000m and cross-country

"The most exciting endurance talent we've had for a long time," said Brian Hall, the British athletics team manager, of Farah, who came to Britain from Somalia five years ago and is in the process of obtaining a British passport. "When I started running aged 11, I couldn't speak English well," Farah said. "Because I couldn't understand the directions during cross country races, I didn't know where to go and just followed the people in front." He learnt English (and the way) and now regularly wipes the floor with the opposition by over a minute. His hero is Haile Gebrselassie. "I like the way he runs. I'd like to do that. It would mean a great deal to run for Britain."

MARK LEWIS-FRANCIS

16-year-old athlete

100m

"The camp is going to help me a lot," Lewis-Francis, founder of the Fantastic Four, said. "Here, you're out training all week, every day, where at home I'd normally only train twice a week. You can spend a lot more time on it, not trying to get everything into the two sessions. I've learnt to take my time." He has recorded 10.49sec in his event and may have a chance of a relay place in the Sydney Olympics. "My starts need to be worked on, and I also run bending forward too much and I need to straighten up." Of the blue glove he and three team-mates wear in races, he said: "We're all going to wear it when we go home and take it forward with us."

NATHAN PALMER

16-year-old athlete

110m hurdles

Hoping to follow in Colin Jackson's footsteps, Palmer has already broken the 110m hurdles record that Britain's No 1 recorded at his age. Jackson did a time of 13.19sec, while Palmer has registered 12.96sec. A talented all-round sportsman, Palmer played rugby for Wales Under-16s and football at the Cardiff City school of excellence before deciding to concentrate on athletics. "The athletics was more a challenge, I get more out of it," he said. Like Mark Lewis-Francis, he's a member of the self-styled Fantastic Four, and, perhaps with an eye on the commercial future, always sports his Nike-logoed blue glove.

SALLY RUSBATCH

14-year-old swimmer

100m and 200m backstroke national champion

"The camp has made me feel very professional," Rusbatch said. "We've had to keep a log book of swims, including heart-rate intensities, and how we feel after each swim." The 7am-9am and 1.30pm-3.30pm training sessions in Orlando offered the chance of a break from 5.15am starts and late-night finishes. "Managing school and sport is difficult. Sharron Davies gave us some valuable information. She said you can always go back to your education but you can't go back to your sport. She's been really friendly. I didn't think she'd be like that, I thought she'd be more professional [and aloof]."

REBECCA MASON

12-year-old gymnast

National Under-14 champion

"The gymnasiums here have more of a competition layout," said the Cheshire gymnast of the Orlando facilities. "And it's a lot warmer than at home." Becky, regarded as the brightest prospect in British gymnastics - started her sport at five but will have to wait until 2004 for a chance of competing in the Olympics. The minimum age in senior competition is now 16. With more muscle definition and power in her 4ft-something frame than most people will ever have, her favourite (and best) discipline is the asymmetric bars and her next target is the European Youth Olympic Days in Denmark in July.

STUART HOLDER

16-year-old badminton player

National Under-17 singles/doubles champion

"At home I've got a scholarship at a posh club, the Solihull racquets and health club," said Holder, who saw huge benefits in the BAOF camp. "Because all of us [the British badminton team] live in different areas of the country at home, it's hard to get together often, so the camp's good. So is the access to the physios and the other things like the workshops on psychology." He added that it had also been eye-opening to meet competitors from other events, even though some are sceptical of the merits of his sport. "They come up and say: `Badminton? You just hit it over the net don't you'?"

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