Water wings clipped by poor facilities

2nd August 1996 at 01:00
Tomorrow's swimming champions think John Major's Raising the Game belongs in the slow lane. Mark Whitehead reports. With a bit of luck Britain may scrape a few more medals before the Olympics are done. But judging by the experiences of young swimmers and their coaches taking part in trials at the national sports centre at Crystal Palace in south London this week, it's surprising that we win any.

Prime Minister John Major promised great things when he dusted off last year's announcement of a new national academy for sport last week - by coincidence, just as the Olympics were getting under way - and gave it another publicity shot.

"We would like to see the very best in British sport become the very best anywhere in the world," he said. "The success of our national sporting heroes gives a lift to the whole country."

Swimmer Paul Palmer, who was winning a silver medal in Atlanta almost as Mr Major was speaking, bitterly attacked the country's poor facilities and lack of support for sports. "The general public is conscious of sports like swimming every four years," he said after picking up his medal. "What can they expect when funding is such a problem?"

Palmer complained that he had to train in a pool half the Olympic length of 50 metres. He could only train full-time by living with his parents. His coach, Ian Turner, had taken unpaid leave from his job as head of a school PE department in order to attend the Olympics.

The Government's Raising the Game proposals include a network of regional centres and invitations to schools to raise funds so that they can specialise in sports on the lines of technology colleges.

But Mr Major will have to do a lot of persuading to win wholehearted support from Britain's swimming fraternity, worn down by years of making do with substandard facilities and a lack of official encouragement.

Ryan Roast, 15, from Barking in Essex, gets up at 5am every weekday to train at a 25-metre pool several miles from home. He recently returned from a trip to the United States. "The facilities are a lot better over there, and they've got a lot more technical support," he says. "The atmosphere is better. They're more competitive and the schools are more supportive."

Laura Jeacock, 15, from Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, says: "There's not enough money in the sport. Britain's not doing very well at the moment so we ought to try something different."

Around 3,000 young swimmers, top performers in their age groups and raw material for future international success, were taking part in the trials at Crystal Palace. Judging by the state of the centre, which appears run down, Mr Major's promise of Pounds 100 million for a new national academy is long overdue.

Viv Firman, national youth development officer for the Amateur Swimming Association which organises the trials, reckons that about 3 per cent of her 50,000 members have access to Olympic-standard pools. Britain, she says, is very much the poor relation to its competitors abroad.

"It's not an accident that successful countries have backing from their governments," she says. "Swimming is an expensive sport."

Dave Crouch, a member of the ASA's international selection committee, has just returned from Atlanta where Richard Maden, a member of his swimming club, the Rochdale Aquabears, has been competing. The trip included a visit to Florida State University. "If we could have a third of what they've got over there the story would be very different," he says.

But it's not only better swimming pools that are needed. A common complaint is that local authorities are being forced to cut the time they can rent pools to potential stars for training. Faced with the pressure of competitive tendering, they have to increase their income and that means opening to the public as much as possible.

Liz Hartley, secretary of the ASA's southern counties division, says: "At one time there was a lot of kudos in having someone like Paul Palmer in your area and giving them the facilities they need. But since competitive tendering they can't afford to do it anymore."

Many coaches also point to the influence of the Sport For All campaign, with its aim of giving everyone the chance to do some sport rather than concentrating on the elite, as one of the causes of the present malaise. More money is needed at the grass roots to give everyone the chance to take part in sport, they say, but Britain must stop being shy about success. And schools must give sport performance similar status to academic achievement.

Mike Drew, president of the British Swimming Coaches Association, says: "We've got to get away from the attitude that being mediocre is good enough. Sport For All has been a millstone around our neck. We want to encourage more people into the sport, but not with this idea that it's perfectly all right just to swim one length."

Many in the world of sport and education are awaiting further details of Raising the Game to see if they could transform Britain's fortunes. But for now there is a good deal of scepticism.

Anne Baines, a senior national referee and deputy head of Clacton county high school, says: "I wouldn't mind being head of a specialist sports school, but my first priority would be to give all schools a big injection of funds so that they all have decent facilities. None of the schools in England are working from a decent base so it's not surprising we're failing to produce Olympic stars."

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