Colleges are laying on a host of sports-related programmes as 2012 approaches, finds Neil Merrick

If British athletes strike gold at the 2012 Olympics, some of the credit may belong to Sussex Downs College. This term, the college is enrolling up to 90 elite athletes for advanced apprenticeships in sporting excellence that, in addition to training them for success, should help provide back-up careers if they fail in their ambition to be the next Kelly Holmes or Linford Christie.

Students must be aged 16 to 18 and in the top eight in their field. The programmes, which cover a range of sports, including tennis and football, are due to finish in summer 2008 - four years before the Games open in London.

As well as developing sporting skills, students will take coaching qualifications and technical certificates. "It's about giving them other career opportunities if they are injured or don't make it in their sport," says Petrina Mayson, the college's projects manager.

Most training will take place away from the Eastbourne and Lewes campuses and be run by each sport's national governing body. But as a centre of vocational excellence (CoVE) in sport and recreation, Sussex Downs is well placed to oversee apprenticeships as well as run five other programmes geared to the Olympics. The college won £2.6m from the European Social Fund (ESF) through the On Your Marks initiative, set up by the Government ahead of 2012.

Through Winning With Women, it hopes to attract 240 women to a career in sports, with free training in first aid, health and safety, and coaching. The scheme should suit women hoping to set up businesses or become instructors. "We are encouraging women who are not doing sport to get involved," says Mayson. "It will be lots of fun."

Other schemes include Changing Track, for people with disabilities, and On Track, which aims to increase the number of qualified coaches in minority sports. There are also schemes for managers of smaller sports businesses and people looking to work as volunteers at the Olympics and other events.

Sussex Downs is by no means the only FE college that is taking advantage of the Olympics to expand courses: many are also focusing on the expected construction boom.

Milton Keynes, Amersham & Wycombe and Oxford and Cherwell colleges, which share a CoVE in construction, have teamed up to run Jobs for the Girls, which is designed to train more women as bricklayers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers.

The colleges won a £150,000 contract to run the scheme, which provides up to eight weeks of free training before work placements and apprenticeships with employers are taken up.

Karen Cheeseman, a CoVE manager, says the Olympics provide an ideal opportunity to tackle the under-representation of women in construction, especially as firms will be looking to train more people ahead of the Games.

"It's a sexy thing to be involved in," she says. "We get few women apprentices, but they are more successful [than men]. They tend to be tenacious because they have something to prove."

Eastleigh College is receiving about £1m from the European Social Fund to run two construction-related programmes with other providers. It expects to train more than 600 maintenance staff and more than 200 managers and supervisors to carry out on-site assessments. Jayne Lewis, head of skills and workforce development at Eastleigh, says the programmes are aimed at people in the industry who are looking for a new career or want to retrain.

Colleges in east London are also making the most of the fact that the world's greatest sporting spectacle will take place on their doorsteps in just six years.

In addition to training in construction, Hackney Community College is offering new courses in hospitality and catering to help local people gain jobs in the numerous hotels and restaurants that are likely to open before 2012. "There is a huge gap in the market," says Hackney's principal- designate, Ian Ashman, who takes up his post in January.

Ashman has visited China to see how it is preparing for the 2008 Games. He discovered that the demand for hospitality and catering staff exceeds that for any other group of workers.

"It's a very exciting time," he says. "So many job opportunities are going to arise."