Sport: Sheffield to be at centre of plan for regional excellence

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The Independent Online
The proposals for a new United Kingdom Institute for Sport signal a change to a more coherent sporting strategy. Mike Rowbottom reports.

The revolution is underway for British sport. Yesterday's announcement that the United Kingdom Institute for Sport - once referred to as the Academy of Sport - would be housed in Sheffield marked an important stage in the overhauling of the whole sporting system.

Until now, British sport has mirrored the British constitution in that it has been built up piecemeal over the years. The new proposals seek to establish an American-style constitution - a coherent system conceived as a whole. The idea of an academy was vigorously promoted a couple of years ago by the then Sports Minister, Iain Sproat, who arrived back from a tour of Australia's Institute of Sport in Canberra with a missionary gleam in his eye.

The worry at the time for many athletes was that this would mean one huge facility which everybody would be obliged to travel to from all parts of the country.

There has been considerable vacillation over what would be the ideal model to pursue, to the point where some of the contenders who were knocked out in the early rounds of bidding have suggested, more than half seriously, that they should be allowed back into the process because the criteria had altered so much.

The fears within the British sporting community were calmed by the decision taken by Chris Smith, the Culture, Media and Sports Secretary, to consult widely with sports governing bodies over the project - which Smith described as "fundamentally flawed" - once the Labour government came to power. The message Smith and the Sports Minister, Tony Banks, received was that what was required was a greater emphasis on regional centres connecting to a central hub.

Accordingly, there will be eight regional centres in England, several in Scotland and one each in Wales and Northern Ireland - all of which will have to be accredited by the national centre.

Two sports - cricket and rugby league - have said they want to develop their own exclusive facilities. Those projects are still in the development stage. Other sports such as rowing and track cycling will base themselves at multi-use facilities outside Sheffield.

But the key element to the whole scheme is that all the parts are within a network which will be able to co-ordinate its support. British competitors are about to start surfing the net towards Sydney.

Essentially, all the money and all the talk is directed at making the life of our sportsmen and women easier.

Last week, the international high hurdler Jacqui Agyepong talked excitedly of her involvement in the new athletics programme which has been set up at Bath University. In recent years she has spent as much time on the M6 as she has on the training ground because she has been obliged to make separate trips to her coach, her physiotherapist and her doctor.

The essence of a sporting institute is that it should provide a one-stop shop for athletes such as Agyepong, allowing them to channel all that wasted energy into becoming faster, higher, stronger.

Thus competitors will be able to remain in training at their local clubs while accessing expertise via their regional centre.

The furthest any athlete will have to travel for treatment, training facilities or support facilities at the Sheffield site will be three miles.

There will be widespread relief that the whole process is finally moving, at a time when many sports are learning how much money they are to receive from a separate National Lottery-funded scheme to benefit sport, the World Class Performance Programme.

The Sheffield consortium includes the city's two universities, two hospital trusts and the city council.

Among the reasons for its success, according to Smith, were that it offered a cohesive site with good transport and infrastructure, and that it had built on existing public investment in sports facilities in the city.

"We are absolutely delighted," a Sheffield City Council spokesman said. "We have always known that Sheffield had the strongest case for this because of the state-of-the-art sports facilities we already have.

"We are right in the middle of the country with great communications. And this is going to be a major plank in our regeneration plans for the city."

The British Olympic Association remained optimistic of playing a role within the overall framework of the Institute, even though it supported the rival Upper Heyford bid.

Dick Palmer, executive vice-president, said the BOA hoped to be involved in running the centre of excellence. "Naturally we are disappointed that the bid was rejected but there were three good bids and I suspect the fine facilities already in place in Sheffield counted in their favour," he said.

"I hope we will still have an input in to the academy. We have not heard anything about the management yet and we hope to be involved in that. We have anticipated we might be cherry-picked for the task but it is too early to speculate."





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