A place where the nation can make heroes

How many gold medals will pounds 100m buy? Paul Vallely and Jim White look at the plan for a national academy of sport
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Sport has always been a barometer of national self-image. This week it is Mike Atherton being offered as a metaphor for the grit, determination and stubbornness we would all like to see in ourselves in these troubled times. "He makes you proud to be English," Terry Venables was quoted as saying in the Sun.

The notion has considerable pedigree. There are those who feel that Harold Wilson only lost the 1970 general election because England's footballers had just been knocked out of the World Cup.

John Major wants to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to him. Yesterday the Sports Council announced the next stage in realising the Prime Minister's dream of creating a new generation of Athertons by establishing a pounds 100m national academy of sport. Some 10,000 consultation documents are to be sent out to sporting bodies, coaches, sports scientists, dieticians, and, oh yes, to the athletes themselves, seeking their views on a project which is to be funded, of course, by the National Lottery.

British sportsmen and women have long envied the opportunities enjoyed by their rivals throughout the world. The United States has sporting facilities on its college campuses which are legendary, and which have for decades drawn many of the pick of British performers. But in recent times other nations have consciously established programmes, funded at great expense from the public purse, to nurture practitioners who will excel on the world stage.

Germany, following the post-war example of the countries of Eastern Europe, set up a tennis academy in the Seventies from which Steffi Graf, Michael Stich and Boris Becker graduated. Sweden did something similar with tennis, and with football, in which it has rapidly left behind its joke- book status.

But the most dramatic example of sporting improvements nurtured by a state-sponsored academy is the Australian Institute of Sport, in Canberra. Set up after a series of disastrous performances in the 1976 Olympics, it has produced a turnaround that can be characterised, even without the usual sporting hyperbole, as dramatic. Australia won twice as many golds as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together at last year's Commonwealth Games, with just a third of the population. Nine out of 10 medallists were products of the Institute - as are many top cricket and rugby players. Shane Warne, the unstoppable leg spinner, entered the Australian Test team virtually straight out of the academy.

In a world where the difference between a gold and silver medal can be measured in minuscule fractions, the fine-tuning available in such an establishment can mean the difference between success and failure. Teams of nutritionists, physiologists, psychologists, psychotherapists and bio- mechanics experts offer gait analysis and muscle power-ratio studies. They will instruct a hurdler on which muscle in the lower calf to develop to ensure crucial performance improvements, or make minute adjustments to the detailed timing of exercise routines to optimise training benefits.

British athletes who can afford to go there during the winter season - they include the 400-metre runner Roger Black, the rower Steve Redgrave, the 110-metres hurdler Colin Jackson and the sprinter Linford Christie - speak of "a little paradise for serious athletes".

Sport has always been a serious business, and never more so than today. For sport is one of the main ways in which a nation can redefine its image in the world.

When New Zealand won the America's Cup earlier this year, the entire country donned red socks in homage to Peter Blake, the boat's captain, who had sported the same. More significantly, New Zealand businessmen touring the Far East in search of inward investment proudly display pictures of the winning team on their brochures.

Ocean-going racing might be one of the least spectator-friendly activities invented, but clearly it is an important marketing tool when it comes to finding a symbol of the enterprise, determination and character that enabled this tiny nation to trounce the world's only sailing superpower.

No longer, Mr Major believes, can Britain afford to treat sport as something only to be played on Wednesday afternoons. The old stereotype of the gentleman- amateur, with its tradition of Oxbridge Blues and insouciant grace, must finally be laid to rest. If the birth of the professional sportsman in Britain came comparatively late, all the more reason to run hard now for the finishing line.

The problem that the Prime Minister is attempting to address, however, will not be solved simply by focusing on an elite. The move to supply the academy with recruits from the nation's playing fields brings ministers up to the embarrassing realisation that previous Conservative initiatives have pressed in the opposite direction. School sports fields were sold off during the Thatcher years. That was also the time when teachers, alienated by ministers' lack of trust, abandoned, along with their sense of vocation, much of their extramural sports activity; it has never recovered.

Deprived of facilities and goodwill, how could young English schoolboys compete with the opportunities given to someone like the England cricketer Robin Smith, who, when he was a boy in South Africa, attended an ordinary state school which had no fewer than 12 grass cricket nets with practice every night? When, a few years ago, the MCC launched an initiative to promote the game, they found only two primary schools in Greater London that still played cricket.

There's the rub. In Sweden, Germany and the United States they did not simply improve opportunities for the elite. They built scores of indoor tennis and football facilities for the mass of the population.

For there is another crucial dimension to the sporting experience. Beyond that of the circuit-hardened professional, or of the effortless exertions of the gentlemen players, lies something much more basic. Sport has primarily to be an activity that ordinary people enjoy without reference to national excellence. Without a base, a pyramid can have no apex.

In the world of sport as international marketing, of course, no such excuses can be accepted. And in the forum of national politics, such plain truth cannot compete with the call for bread and circuses.