Nurturing nature: on the lookout for Olympic champions

A new scheme that identifies talent and finds them a suitable sport is crucial if GB are to keep shining
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The Independent Online

It was half an hour into his first match for Cardiff, as he stood alongside his full-back and watched the other 28 players readily indulge in a mass brawl, that Nigel Walker began to wonder whether he had made the right decision.

The Talbot Athletic Ground, home of Aberavon, would never lay claim to be one of the world's more salubrious sporting venues, certainly not when compared with the Monegasque backdrop to Walker's previous sporting incarnation, six weeks previously. "I was 29," says Walker, who had arrived back in Cardiff from warm-weather training in Monaco shortly before swapping the athletics track for the rugby pitch. "When I told Colin Jackson that I was switching sports, he said 'You're mad, they will break you in two'."

Walker competed in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics but, born and bred in the Welsh capital, he switched back to his rugby roots and four months later was wearing his country's deep red shirt; an Olympic 110m hurdler turned flying international winger. Now, with running spikes and rugby boots long stowed away, Walker is the national director of the English Institute of Sport (EIS) but his past has never been more relevant as he plots the future of Olympic sporting success beyond the all-devouring 2012 Games.

Britain has become one of the world's leading Olympic nations; fourth place in the Beijing Games medals tables and second in the same Paralympics are placings expected to be matched in London in a year's time, only accompanied by more medals. This from a nation that is the 22nd most populous on earth, that won nearly twice as many medals as Japan, which has a population twice as large, and finished comfortably ahead of Germany and its 20m more inhabitants. It is a sporting arena in which this country reaches above itself but as elite sport grows ever more intense – France and Australia are both targeting Britain's fourth place next year – and financially demanding, the need to unearth hidden talent grows ever more imperative.

The London Olympics demand current attention, but it has also given Walker, the EIS and UK Sport the impetus to provide for the future. "We have got a window of opportunity and we have to maximise that," says Walker. "Sport is going to be in the shop window. We must make sure sport is in a better place post-2012 than it was pre-2012."

It is from the old East Germany that the germ of an idea came – selecting a sport for talented athletes rather than vice-versa, albeit in a rather less forced manner than practised behind the Iron Curtain. That has then been combined with this country's long-held liking for talent contests; from knobbly knees to Mr (and Miss) Muscles.

Last Sunday the first batch of more than 1,000 wannabe Olympians – all with a degree of sporting pedigree but looking for a new challenge – gathered at Crystal Palace for the latest in a series of trials designed to talent-spot the next generation of British medal winners. More will follow in Leeds, Loughborough, Cardiff and Stirling. Watched by sports scientists and coaches from a number of Olympic teams, the best participants, aged between 15 and 26, will be cherry-picked for a training scheme designed to put the very best of them in GB colours come the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro or the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

"It is a simple idea," says Walker. "I did it by chance and this scheme is to take the chance out of it. It's getting so competitive at elite level that we've got to think smarter and find ways to make sure we maximise our talent. For every 15 to 26-year-old in the UK there are 15 Chinese, six Russians and three Americans. We are at a population disadvantage so we have to work harder and make sure that every pound is well spent."

Power2podium is the seventh nationwide hunt for sporting talent run by the EIS and UK Sport in the past four years. This one is designed to divert athletes from their current sport to canoeing, cycling, rugby sevens – making its Olympic debut in Rio – weightlifting or bobsleigh. Chelsea Waugh, head of talent at UK Sport, and two of the body's sport scientists, Natalie Denman and Ian Yates, evolved the first scheme in 2007 and earlier this month Helen Glover and Victoria Thornley, two of the first products of Sporting Giants – a programme that attracted an initial 3,500 applicants – brought home a silver and bronze medal from the world rowing championships in Slovenia.

"Sometimes somebody who is very, very raw might have more potential to improve than someone who is already involved in a sport," says Denman. Mario Santos-Costa was as raw as they come. He was a shop fitter and non-league footballer when he turned up for an assessment day – "horrible" is how he remembers the power tests that followed – but impressed enough to be one of 40 asked back for a canoeing trial – despite being over 6ft he was considered too small for rowing. "When I first saw the boat I thought how the hell am I going to do that," says Santos-Costa. "I got in and a couple of minutes later I fell out. It was like kneeling on a plank of wood."

Now Santos-Costa is competing at international level, has a chance of making next year's Games and, failing that, the very real prospect of being in Rio. He is one of 51 from the six schemes – in all more than 7,000 athletes have been assessed – to have reached international level. Another is Bobby White, also a former footballer, who will captain Britain's first Olympic handball team next year. Between the 51 they have amassed 177 international appearances, 65 medals including 12 in world championships, 10 in World Cups and six in European championships. "We were told it takes eight years to become a world-class athlete," says Santos-Costa. "We were asked to do it in four."

"We know it works," says Walker, "because the schemes have produced. We have a track record of doing it and we know we can. It's having an impact at the highest level. We would hope that the success rate over the next three, four years will be even greater and add to the number of medals we will win in Rio. This is a more expensive way of doing it because if people find their way organically to a sport it costs us nothing. The bottom line is elite sport and trying to achieve excellence in elite sport is expensive – it's whether you think the end result is worth it. We do."

Funding for Britain's Olympic teams and athletes has risen dramatically since Athens in 2004, from around £70m to some £300m for next year, and has played a fundamental part in Britain's success. It will peak for London and be reassessed after 2013 with a lesser governmental award certain to follow given the current economic climate.

Talent ID schemes have to produce an end result to justify their place in the wider plan for Rio. The presence of a Glover, Thornley or even someone like the upwardly mobile Richard Jefferies from the Isle of Wight, another who found canoeing through Sporting Giants, on a London podium would provide the best possible boost to the concept of directing raw athletic talent to the sport where it is most likely to produce something tangible. In effect, it is nurturing nature.

"Skills are transferable from sport to sport," says Walker, who scored 12 tries in his 17 caps for Wales, to add to his athletic achievements. "I've proved that – I had speed and power and that transferred from athletics to rugby. Some people can't hack it and there will be a hit rate. But we know if we identify people now there is every chance of somebody from this scheme appearing in the Summer Games in 2016 and the 2018 Winter Olympics. What a fantastic opportunity for someone – in five years time they could be competing in the Olympics simply because they registered for this scheme."

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Rebecca Romero

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The 2004 Olympics quadruple sculls silver-medallist (below) successfully moved from rowing to cycling in 2006. In 2008 she became the first British woman to compete in two different sports in the Olympics, and only the second summer Games Olympian to reach the podium in two different disciplines, winning gold in the individual pursuit (right).

Willie Gault Athletics and american football

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Denis Compton

English cricketing superstar Denis Compton scored 17 Test hundreds and finished his career with a batting average of 50. He also excelled on the football pitch, playing outside-left for Arsenal (left) and 'unofficially' for England during the war. He scored 15 goals for the Gunners and received an FA Cup winners' medal for his part in Arsenal's 2-0 victory over Liverpool, in 1950

Jim Thorpe Athletics, American Football, Baseball and Basketball

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Eric Liddell Rugby and Athletics

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Less successful was...

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