Time to halt transatlantic `brawn drain'

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American colleges sponsor students with athletic ability but here university sport is given a low priority. Tom Chesshyre reports Paul McQuaid, a 24-year-old Mancunian on a full swimming scholarship at the University of Georgia, says he is having the time of his life: "It's great out here. I've got my own fitness coach and there is a fantastic pool with seats for a thousand spectators - we get cheerleaders at our meets.

"If I'd stayed in Britain I would probably have had to give up swimming altogether. Our universities are not flexible enough to allow you to train properly."

McQuaid, who is taking a business degree, admits he is lucky. He is making the most of his natural sporting talent and is gaining a full education. Not only does he hope to make the British Olympic squad for Atlanta, but he is considering whether to takea masters degree when he graduates in June.

Over the last 10 years there has been a flood of Britain's best student sportsmen and women - like McQuaid - to American universities.

This year alone, 450 have gone on sports scholarships to take advantage of coaching and training facilities that make most British universities green with envy. It has been dubbed the "brawn drain".

It is a trend that has frustrated all those involved in British student sport. With neither the cash nor the tradition, British universities have found it nigh on impossible to compete.

But now a concerted effort is being made to reverse the trend. The British Universities Sports Association was formed last summer to introduce a more competitive structure and, it is hoped, attract more money to campus sport.

This year for the first time old and new universities [the former polytechnics and higher education colleges] have been brought together in championships. Before, there had been separate leagues.

Kyran Bracken, England's scrum-half, passed his Law Society exams at the University of the West of England last year after three years studying for his main law degree at Bristol University, where he was on the rugby team.

He is excited by the changes: "Before you didn't get the chance to play big `derby' games between polys and universities from the same city. I think that there should be even more competition - possibly in the form of more cups."

While at Bristol, Bracken says that he was treated very well. He was a member of the university's "advanced sports squad" which was made up of the top 20 sportsmen and women at the university. The squad met regularly to discuss fitness training, mental preparation for events and time management - Jonathan Webb is another successful former member.

Exams were rescheduled to fit in with Bracken's international commitments. He was awarded the first-ever sports bursary at Bristol, worth £500, to help pay for travel and injury treatment.

But Bracken said: "Other universities were much worse off than us. At some the students even coached themselves and it would end up with friends picking friends for the team."

In contrast, Michelle Griffith, the British and Commonwealth record holder in the triple jump, had a torrid time at first when studying languages at Thames Valley University. Her tutors had no idea of the demands of combining studying with training to bea high-class international athlete. Griffith said: "To be fair, I don't think my tutors knew what level I was at, or else they would have been more lenient. We eventually came to an understanding, but it was a difficult period."

Student sport in the US is in a completely different league. College basketball and American football teams are shown to huge audiences on local TV. Big matches are often shown nationally, and 20,000-seater stadiums are regularly packed: it is big business.

By comparison British university sport is desperately short of cash. BUSA is pinning its hopes on receiving National Lottery money as well as attracting private sponsorship. The first aim is to build training facilities - gyms and running tracks. Peter Rhodes, the general secretary of BUSA, also plans to start a centralised system of sports scholarships.

At the moment only Bath and Stirling Universities offer full sports scholarships - normally one or two each year. The lucky recipients are almost always required to be international-class athletes. Special trust funds and private sponsorship finance the scholarships. But it is small time next to US colleges which often send out international talent scouts to help fill the thousands of scholarship places. McQuaid wrote to the University of Georgia with details of his swimming times as well as his academic qualifications. It was well worth it: he receives enough money to cover his college fees, his accommodation and his food.

A major problem with student sport in Britain is that it does not generate its own income. The only real money-spinner is the Varsity match at Twickenham.

Most agree that change is urgent. The majority of those who embark on professional careers in sports do not make the grade and that is why, according to Tony Ward, the spokesman for the British Athletic Federation, it is crucial that young sportsmen and women have the opportunity to invest in their future by taking a degree. "Even those who do well can be left stranded with poor job prospects at the end of their athletics careers," he said.

Despite the financial limitations, there have been many notable recent British sportsmen and women at university. In cricket there are two Test players: Mike Atherton and John Crawley, who both played for Cambridge. In athletics there are Curtis Robb, Michelle Griffith, Steve Smith and Richard Nerurkar, among others. In football there are Phil Whelan (Ipswich), Rob Matthews (Notts County) and Kenny Lowe (Birmingham City).

They have all done it the hard way. For example, Robb is in his fourth year, of five, studying medicine (one of the most demanding degrees) at Sheffield University, very much following in the footsteps of Sir Roger Bannister, who ran the first sub-four-minute mile while a medical student at St Mary's in London.

Robb trains fours hours a day on top of a "heavy" academic workload which includes shifts at a local hospital ward. His tutors have let him take next year off so that he con concentrate on training for the Atlanta Olympics.

The Corinthian ideal is still alive. "When I stand at the starting line and look around me knowing I've had to work twice as hard as many of my opponents to get where I am, then I want to win twice as much."

But Robb et al are the exception to the rule. McQuaid, who has seen the way university sport can work in America, said: "Britain has a long way to go yet. Only when it's on TV will it be on a par with the US. And - of course - there must be cheerleaders."