Olympics: Britain's secret success factory

Loughborough is a centre of excellence dealing with sports from tennis to tae kwon do. Rob Hastings visits his alma mater to see how it's rewriting the rules

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The Independent Online

Scarcely anyone outside the East Midlands can point to Loughborough on a map, as I know only too well. Whenever I mention I studied there, the second question almost everybody asks is: "Where is it?"

Their first question, however, shows that geographical anonymity has done no harm to the university's reputation in one particular field. Despite being faced with the contrary evidence of my untoned, wholly unathletic figure, that first question is always the same: "Did you study sport?"

For even a chubby English literature graduate to be asked this, Loughborough must be doing something right. And a look at its heaving record books proves that beyond any doubt.

Its alumni include Lord Coe, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Clive Woodward and Bob Wilson. If the university were a country, with past and present students its citizens, it would have come fifth at the last Commonwealth Games – ahead of South Africa – in terms of its 44 medals won. Its students have won the British Universities & Colleges Sport championship for 30 years running, sometimes finishing with more than double their closest rival's points tally. The England cricket academy is in Loughborough, the England rugby league team are based there and the campus is home to many of the country's finest athletes. And that is not to mention its world-leading place in sports science – the football used at the last World Cup was designed here.

With all that in mind, it's no wonder that Loughborough has been chosen to host Team GB's London Olympics preparation camp in June, when it will welcome every one of the athletes for a kitting out ceremony and final get-together before the Games begin.

In fact, Loughborough's sporting prowess is so strong that the university was bidding to host an Olympic team before the decision to hold the Games in London had even been announced.

"Our original strategy was based upon the premise that we thought Paris was going to get it," says Chris Earle, Loughborough's director of sport. "We'd spoken to the Australians and the Americans about using Loughborough as an English-speaking base next to the East Midlands Airport, for them to be able to commute to Paris. But when the guy said 'London', we changed strategy."

Perhaps it is just as well, because the Americans may have been put off by a name some of the their citizens find confusing; visitors from the US have often been heard to pronounce it "Loo-ga-bo-roo-ga".

So how did this former technical college in a pleasant but unremarkable Leicestershire market town become the centre of elite sport in Britain?

The most obvious answer lies in Loughborough's countless state-of-the-art training facilities, built in partnership with many sports' national governing bodies. A tour of the vast single-site campus – the biggest in the UK, at 437 acres, and sprinkled with outdoor pitches – demonstrates why Earle can say: "Loughborough is more than a university; we're now part of the national sporting infrastructure in the same way as Wembley, Lord's or Wimbledon."

The state-of-the-art High Performance Athletics Centre, next door to the Paula Radcliffe Stadium, is among many facilities to have seen millions of pounds of investment. Eight 120-metre sprint lanes, two long-jump lanes with a sand pit, a high-jump bed, two pole-vault beds, separate areas for javelin and discus, a strength-and-conditioning suite and much else are contained under one massive, shiny silver roof.

Half of the 500 athletes regularly using this and other buildings are full-time professionals funded by UK Athletics, which has set up home in the town. But the other half are students who also have serious aspirations of appearing in London.

"This is certainly the place to be," says Laura Whittingham, a javelin thrower aiming to qualify for the Games while completing her PhD, analysing the design of sports bras. Nathan Woodward, who combines his training in the 400m hurdles with a BSc in human biology, agrees. "Loughborough is the best place to prepare," he says. "Everything is here: the facilities, the physios, the coaches, they've got a great medical team, so everything is perfect for my training."

Badminton, netball, gymnastics, hockey, tae kwon do: all have dedicated centres on campus. Tennis has two, one holding the LTA's regional academy. A beach volleyball court is being built, along with a centre for javelin, discus and hammer throwers, and the Powerbase gym is an intense sight when full.

But it's a peek inside the swimming pool that really shows what you get for your money – and it's not just the eight Olympic-standard lanes, with a hydraulic base to adjust the depth and a movable wall to change the length. Nor is it the multiple cameras above and below the water that help swimmers analyse their technique. Ian Armiger, the director of swimming, shows The Independent his secret weapon: a small backroom containing computerised records of every competitive swim his team have taken part in across the world – as well of many of their rivals.

"The Americans would say 'You've got more information on Michael Phelps than we have'," says Armiger. The programme led by him and head coach Ben Titley has seen 12 Loughborough swimmers qualify for London already – among them Liam Tancock, a world-record holder in 50m backstroke.

"The technical analysis guys film all the races, there's all the stats and the graphs, and those can be sent direct to the coaches' iPhones and iPads, so they can sit with the swimmer in the hotel, go through the race and flag up the areas for improvement," Armiger explains. "They analyse every bit of their swim, how fast their arms go round, their stroke rate, what their turn times are. We can do this from the heats to the final and make changes."

It's not all about technological wizardry, of course. "We are always thinking of new initiatives for that fine margin," says Armiger. "It might be a little bit of extra measuring equipment but other stuff is our imagination. Ben has a Russian woman who comes in and takes them in ballet class to improve their poise and balance and core stability, he takes them rock climbing for co-ordination and kayaking for team building."

Indeed, as impressive as the facilities are, all the athletes I speak to underline that the university's coaches are the most important reason for their success. Armiger points out that he had a team setting world records and qualifying for the Olympics in 2000, when Loughborough still had "one of the worst pools in Britain", built in 1939.

Likewise, the facilities in the 1970s when the legendary athletics coach George Gandy developed his all-important conditioning exercise regime for Seb Coe, were not groundbreaking. It was the heritage of good coaching that brought investment.

"Track and field is a relatively simple sport," says the athletics director of coaching, Nick Dakin. "You can bring lots of technological tools to bear that give you better levels of feedback, but at the end of the day it's about the basics and attention to detail."

It was largely because of Dakin that Martyn Rooney, who ran in the 400m final in Beijing in 2008 and has set a goal of achieving a British record time in London, came to Loughborough. "The way we train is basically to hurt yourself, to go as hard as you can for as long as you can and survive. There's no secrets, no shortcuts," he says. "Athletics is pretty basic. You see the African runners, they basically jog around on a dirt track, and that's what Nick does: he makes it very simple."

However, a few athletes have struggled with life inside the "bubble". There is also the fact not all the students at Loughborough are dedicated to perfecting their physiques; the closest many come to taking part in sport is the "Naked 400", a late-night, booze-driven ritual, frowned upon by the campus authorities, of completing a 400m circuit of the athletics track in not so much as a jock strap. Adam Rae, an economics graduate who is now president of the Athletics Union, struggles to suppress a smile when he claims that the famed initiation ceremonies no longer exist, saying they are now merely "welcome socials".

The culture of elitism, however, also leads to accusations of arrogance from rival universities. "There's a really fine line between arrogance and confidence," says Earle. "We're not arrogant, but we want to create a place where people learn to win in all walks of life."

If the current crop of athletes have learnt how to win at their home nation's Olympic Games, Loughborough University has done its job.

Home from home: sporting bases

Athletics The Paula Radcliffe Stadium and the National High Performance Centre. Throwing centre under construction.

Badminton Home of England's High Performance squad.

Cricket Base of the ECB Academy, also used by Test & one-day international teams.

Gymnastics Dedicated centre and Powerbase gym facility.

Hockey State of the art pitches used by English national players.

Netball Home of the English national squad and local team Loughborough Lightning.

Olympics Base for Team GB's pre-Olympic preparation camp.

Rugby League Used as a base by England for last year's Four Nations Championship.

Swimming Olympic-standard facility and comprehensive analysis and training centre.

Tae kwon do Dedicated martial arts training centre on campus.

Tennis Two dedicated centres, one is LTA's regional academy.

Loughborough's Great Britons

Lord Coe Double Olympic gold medallist, 1500m; BSc Economics 1979

Fran Cotton England rugby captain; Physical Education 1973

Dr Gerald Davies Wales and British Lions rugby player; PE DLC 1966

Tanni Grey-Thompson Paralympic gold medallist; BA in Politics 1991

Dave Moorcroft Former 5000m world record holder; PE BEd 1976

Monty Panesar England spin bowler; Computing and Management 2005

Paula Radcliffe Marathon record holder; European Studies BA 1996

Andy Robinson England rugby coach and player; BSc Sports Science 1985

Bob Wilson Double-winning Arsenal goalkeeper; PE 1963

Sir Clive Woodward World Cup winning England rugby coach; PE 1978