Westway is paving the path for a whole new generation

A sporting culture club is changing lives - and London 2012 can be the winner. Alan Hubbard reports
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Most who drive along the elevated section of the A40 into London will have no clue what happens below. It is here that sport goes underground, for beneath the concrete flyover is one of the most remarkable examples of what helped make London's Olympic bid a winner: the fusion of cultures in an ethnic mix and focus on youth that not only breeds hopes for 2012, but transforms lives and is leaving a legacy for the future. The Westway project, backed by Sport England, is a multi-sports complex housed on a large stretch of formerly derelict land under one of Britain's busiest thoroughfares specifically designed to reach out cheaply and readily to parts of the community who otherwise would not have access to the kind of facilities which exist here.

What Amir Khan preached from the ring in Bolton, the harmonising of races through sport, is already well established in this corner of west London which in the past few weeks has witnessed some frightening scenes with terrorist-related activity culminating in Friday's arrests at the nearby Peabody Estate.

The area may embrace several millionaires' rows but the immediate environment is comprised mainly of high-rise tenement estates where it is estimated some 90 languages are spoken, most of them now heard daily on the centre's artificial football pitches, indoor tennis courts (where 600 children are coached every week), gymnasiums or among those clambering up the 300 different routes of the biggest indoor climbing wall in the country. There are many different colours and creeds too among the 60 strong staff and interestingly a significant number of coaches, and Westway's half a million yearly visitors, are Muslim, notably young girls and women whose families were originally from nations where participating in sport is not part of the culture for females.

Twelve-year-old Sarah Sultan is an enthusiastic swimming, gymnastics and indoor climbing prospect. She was born here but her mother, Selemet Abbe, is from Eritrea, on the horn of Africa. She was encouraged to join Westway because Selemet's close friend, Nadira Kerouaz, an Algerian, is a fitness conditioning and aerobics instructor there. Like most Muslim women they adhere to the Islamic dress code, which means the heads and most of the body must be fully covered at all times, even when playing sport.

"There is actually no problem with this," explains Nadira, 34, who has lived here for 14 years, is married to a graphic designer who she often beats at tennis, with two sports-playing sons and a degree in modern languages from Westminster University. She is currently studying for her Masters.

"Nadira can do whatever sports she wishes with other girls. Our dress code is respected and everyone here is very friendly and helpful. We are very lucky to have facilities like this. Most Muslim females do not find it a problem, even if they wear the full burqa. They come here, do their training and are able to stay well covered. What many do not realise is that the Islamic religion encourages sport for women as well as men. It tells us to keep the body healthy, and sport has many benefits for us."

As Westway has no swimming facilities the girls are bussed to St Paul's in Hammersmith, an independent girls' school where they can train in seclusion. Westway's associate director of sports, John O'Brien, says: "Swimming in public is a problem for Muslim girls. It depends on the parents, some are stricter than others. Sarah's mother is very open-minded. She allows her to compete with others, and there are quite a lot of young girls like her who enjoy their swimming.

"We work in partnership with the local Muslim cultural centre but from a huge Muslim contingent the centre attracts several ethnic groups which are often under-represented in sport. Kids are drawn from local schools where for 75 per cent of them English is a second language. They are keen to assimilate in our development programme and who knows, there could be a number of them competing for Britain in 2012."

The new and expanded Westway was opened in 2001 with a Sport England investing some £9m from Lottery funds. It is operates for 14 hours daily with sessions averaging around £3, though there are reductions for the disabled and others less privileged. "We believe that sport and physical activity can bring communities together, especially in difficult times like these," says Sport England's chief executive, Roger Draper. "Westway is a model example of a multi-sport facility supporting local people of all ages and backgrounds. Sport England is investing and developing further multi-sports environments in every region. These will all have an important role to play in boosting the number of people getting active."

Nadira, who lives close to the centre, says: "We are so happy that London has the Olympic Games. What we need to do now on the strength of this is to get more women and children into sport and to take more exercise, whatever their culture or religion. This is one of the best countries in the world for allowing you to do what you want to do in the way you want to do it. I consider we are very lucky to be living here.

"Our fitness classes have ladies from many different social, racial and cultural backgrounds, both young and old. They all like to have a laugh, and enjoy what they are doing and the company of each other. They want to mix, to harmonise. It is an amazing feeling."

So far, says Nadir, there has been no discernible backlash towards her community following the atrocities. "Yes, of course people are shocked but they understand that we are just as appalled as everyone else by what has happened, and those who did it. This is not our Islam. As Muslims we are very much part of the community. Yes, there are certain cultural differences and we have to be careful about these but it would be wonderful if some of the Muslim girls we are encouraging here could be part of London's Olympics."