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No smarter than an ox?

They may be considered 'dumb', but sporting undergrads excel at juggling many demands, as Huw Richards finds out

It was James Thurber who memorably defined the stereotype of the "dumb jock" in his autobiographical essay "University Days". "At that time Ohio State University had one of the best football teams in the country and Bolenciecwz was one of its outstanding stars. In order to be eligible to play, it was necessary for him to keep up in his studies, a very difficult matter, for while he was not dumber than an ox, he was not any smarter."

The stereotype has crossed the Atlantic and found some memorable upholders. England cricketer Ian Peebles spent just a year at Oxford University, but set enduring records with his bowling - taking 80 wickets -and quite possibly in his studies, being informed by his law tutor at Brasenose College: "You scored 1 per cent on one paper, and were not quite so successful in the other." More recently, rugby player Will Carling completed his psychology degree at Durham, but without honours.

Others subvert the stereotype. The British Olympic team in Sydney includes distance runner Paula Radcliffe, who gained a first in European studies at Loughborough University, and javelin thrower Nick Neiland, who is completing a chemistry doctorate at Bristol University. For three years in the early 1960s, Cambridge cricket teams boasted Mike Brearley, who gained a first and lectured in philosophy at Newcastle before captaining England, and Edward Craig, a triple first who is now a professor of philosophy.

The relationship between elite athletes and universities is inherently contentious. For most sports, the years between 18 and 22 are essential to development - in some cases, they are those of peak performance. It also cuts to the issue of what universities are for - the balance between academic and other objectives in the pursuit of excellence.

Unlike their US counterparts, UK universities have few incentives to make the recruitment of outstanding athletes a priority. The key issue is whether their other commitments will allow time and energy for coursework. It is a reasonable concern. Will Carling was bright enough - with an A, B and C at A level - to have achieved a decent degree. It was finding the motivation in a final year that coincided with his elevation to the England team that was problematic. Cricketer David Gower had good A levels, he but dropped out of University College London.

Traditionally structured degree courses have not always been a good fit with the demands of top-level sport. This applied even to the pioneering sports science course at Liverpool Polytechnic, now Liverpool John Moores University. Tom O'Reilly, professor of sports science at the university, recalls: "We did have students who were top-class performers, but we had to say to one or two 'if you do want to make it to the Olympics, are you sure you will be able to manage the work as well?'" The most significant shift has been in course structures. Professor O'Reilly points out: "Sport has not driven the move to modular courses and credit accumulation, but it has certainly benefited from the greater flexibility they offer students."

Yet, for all the anecdotes about top athletes in higher education, what research we do have suggests that involvement in top-level sport does not lower overall standards.

Wolf-Dietrich Brettschneider of the University of Paderborn found, in a study of 7,000 Berlin teenagers, that elite athletes were above average academically. Lucy Kimber of Athlete and Career Education (Ace UK), a lottery-funded support and advice programme, notes that 34 per cent of the 900 athletes they assist have degrees. The figures have yet to be fully analysed for factors such as age and class, but they suggest better than average academic performance.

Rod Thorpe, director of sports development at Loughborough University, points out that their sports scholars have to keep up academically to retain their awards. He reckons that results accord with the normal range of outcomes.

This is impressive, given that they have to cope with the time, energy and emotional demands of training and competition, as well as with requirements of study and social life.

Mr Thorpe suggests that the lifestyle of an elite athlete may be a good preparation for effective study. "They must be well organised and disciplined. They know how important it is to plan their time - they've probably been doing it with their coaches since they were 15."

Institutions are becoming more flexible. Loughborough, with its long sporting tradition, predictably allowed swimmers Rosalind Brett and Janine Belton to defer half of this year's modules to prepare for and compete in the Sydney Olympics. Aston University has been ready to allow Helen Richardson, the youngest member of the women's hockey squad, to start her studies later than scheduled.

Kimber and Ace UK have set up a network in universities of people with sufficient authority within institutions to mediate when students and staff fall out over study-sport conflicts, but have not yet needed to call on any of them.

Rather than US-style sports scholarships, British student athletes are probably more likely to follow the path laid down by support schemes such as Ace UK and Bristol University's Advanced Sports Squad. All members come through the standard admissions process - although a scheme to reserve 20 places for elite performers who fulfil Bristol's A-level requirements is under discussion - and take the full range of academic subjects. Squad members - this year there are 23 - meet fortnightly for sessions on subjects such as sports science, dealing with the media and stress management.

Nicki Dunston-Lewis, the programme's administrator, has completed a doctoral thesis on the experience of the group. She found that the athletes were uneasy about their standing with other students and tutors. "They don't want to be singled out as different by the peers or by academics. Typical comments were: 'If I say I compete for Great Britain, other students will think that I am a show-off or that I am looking for special treatment' - there is a fear of being typecast as a dumb jock." She notes that they rarely attend classes in trainers or tracksuits with national or team insignias.

When she interviewed academics, she found that many were unaware of their students' sporting activities. One consequence of this finding is that she now writes to each squad member at the start of the academic year, explaining their commitments during the year: "We are not putting the academics under pressure. We cannot make them do anything. It is simply a matter of making them aware."

She points out that good academic performance is not the programme's only goal: "The aim is that they balance all roles effectively and have a better all-round student experience."

But she has no doubt that this approach, integrating the athlete within the mainstream student body but providing some specialised support, is better for students than the US scholarship model.

"Under the American system, sports scholars often live and study apart from other students. The more segregated they are, the more isolated they feel, academic performance declines and they feel increased pressure to perform on the sports field."

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