Newham's sporting chance

25th November 2005 at 00:00
The 2012 Olympics may help produce that rare breed: a state-educated fencing star. Nick Hilborne on efforts to develop talent and build a legacy in east London.

Fencing has traditionally been dominated by competitors from Eton or Harrow, not Canning Town or Stratford. But, thanks to the Olympics, that might be about to change.

Sixty per cent of the 500-acre Olympic Park will be in the London borough of Newham, including the stadium and village.

Newham has the youngest and most cosmopolitan population in the UK. More than 40 per cent of its residents are under 25, and more than 100 languages are spoken. On some council estates 35 per cent are unemployed and there are serious health problems.

Last summer the borough offered children the chance to take part in a range of Olympic sports. More than 200 took up fencing - traditionally done almost exclusively in private schools - for the first time. This convinced Newham council to fund a fencing programme.

Linda Strachan, a PE teacher at Lister school, Plaistow, has seven British and seven Commonwealth fencing titles. She has taught at private schools and now heads the Newham fencing programme, coaching 200 children in 10 primary and secondary schools.

"Private-school children have got a lot of money, but no heart," she said.

"Newham kids are streetwise, and have a will to win. Many kids from private schools are very technical, but do not have the same fire. There are plenty of naughty kids in Newham. They like the discipline. It calms them down.

Also it's new, and they get to dress up."

Ms Strachan has identified at least 10 young fencers who might be good enough to compete for Britain in 2012. In some sports it is probably too late to take raw talent and nurture it for the London Olympics. Potential star athletes of 2012, for example, will be older, probably at least 16, and experienced in their event. But this does not mean the Olympics cannot inspire a longer-term transformation.

"Those who make it to the touch line in 2012 will already be well-established," Angela Littlewood, education services manager at UK Athletics, said. "We want the London Olympics to leave behind a lasting legacy. We hope that by then we will have changed the way athletics is taught in schools, so that children currently in secondary schools will be able to compete in the 2016 Olympics."

To do this, UK Athletics is launching this month an athletics training programme for schools, called "Elevating Athletics". Miss Littlewood said 120 specialist tutors, half of them PE teachers, would be visiting schools.

But in those sports where it is realistic to train youngsters in time for 2012, Newham is keen to find local talent.

"It would be ridiculous if there was no one from this area competing in the games, when the stadium will be in our borough," said Lucia Devine, Newham council's adviser for PE and dance. The borough has recruited Tessa Sanderson, the former javelin gold medallist, as an Olympic sports ambassador, to visit schools and find talent in athletics, basketball and other sports.

Ms Devine said she was hoping the opening ceremony of the games would also boost dance across Newham. "We should have 1,000 kids from east London in the ceremony, not just groups of professional dancers," she said.

Twenty-six children from Langdon, a comprehensive and specialist sports college in East Ham, have already featured on the international stage. They spent five days in Singapore as part of the UK's Olympic bid team, and saw London's triumph at first hand.

Pinda Jagdev, the school's director of PE, said the Singapore trip had been amazing and everyone was looking forward to the games.

Vanessa Wiseman, Langdon's head, said the Olympics would also bring jobs to an area of high unemployment. More than half of her 1,800 children are entitled to free school meals. She said those leaving this summer were already being influenced by the Olympics in their choice of courses or colleges, whether in construction or travel and tourism. With 51 languages spoken at the school, translation work may be an option.

"Before the announcement people wondered if children would be very excited by London winning the games, but they were and they are," she said.

"Participation in sport is increasing and young people who get involved tend to do better in their academic work."

At St Angela's Ursuline convent school, Forest Gate, a Roman Catholic girls' school, this term's Year 7 classes have been named after leading sportswomen, such as "Holmes" after double gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes or "Lewis" after Denise Lewis, gold medallist in the heptathlon.

"It's fantastic," Yvette Jarvis, head of sport, said. "Everyone in the school and borough feels the same. With five years at the school ahead of them, one of our Year 7s could become an Olympian. Suddenly the kids are thinking, 'If I train a bit harder, I could actually reach my potential.'"

A spokesman for UK Sport, which advises the Government on funding, said it was assessing how to develop talent in each of the 26 Olympic sports. "It is much more expensive to fund a whole squad of 26 to 30 to take part in a sport like water polo or basketball, where they could win only one medal, than a team of 50 athletes to take part in a whole range of events," he said.

UK Sport will hand a list of funding options to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport at the end of this month, leaving it to the Government to decide which sports get funding, and how much. "We need eight years to get some sports onto the podium," he said. "We only have seven left. If we want to be competitive, we need to move quickly."

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