by Will Steele-Moore
Team Durham is in the news again this week with another £500,000 being ploughed into sports facilities at Maiden Castle. This is the latest instalment of a truck-load of money being thrown at the University’s sporting centre – part of the creation of what Team Durham calls a ‘new £6.7m world-class sports facility at Durham University, cementing the University’s global reputation as a centre for sporting excellence’.
Most spectacular of the recent projects is the £1m indoor rowing tank, which has been enhancing the performance of DUBC’s strapping young rowers for a year now. Our esteemed Vice-Chancellor, not one to miss an opportunity to add his two-penneth, commented: “This is another monumental year for sporting achievement at Durham University and we are immensely proud.”
Convinced as he is that Durham has the best student representation in the country, Professor Higgins’s comments should reflect the delight that the entire student body takes in Team Durham’s new facilities. But he has been known to drop the odd clanger, and I’m not sure this pronouncement is any different, not least because most of us will never get the chance to use any of these new facilities.
I’m not sure about the rest of the student population, but the thought that our rowers might be able to shave half a nano-second off their 500m split time as a result of this enormous new tank does not fill me with pride. Given that most of us have better things to do than comb Team Durham’s website for news of a few elite sportsmen, I think the majority of my fellow Durhamites would have similar sentiments if asked. Had the university commissioned fifty solid gold statues of Professor Higgins (come on Chris, you know you want to), this spending would have probably been more relevant to most of our lives.
Team Durham’s spending is not just on equipment, however. The Lacrosse programme concentrates on ‘overseas postgraduate recruitment’, which essentially entails handing several talented American players scholarships, whilst we mere mortals continue throwing our nine grand a year at the Vice-Chancellor. It is partly our money that funds these Lacrosse players, through the £100 sports levy each fresher has to cough up. And yet at the last Univeristy Lacrosse match I attended, I was the only spectator. It is often said that actions speak louder than words. If that is so then the attendance figure at this match speaks for itself. Far from being ‘immensely proud’, most of us seem at best ambivalent towards University-level sport.
What we do care about is college sport. Venture down to Maiden Castle on any weekend and you will witness armies of people taking part in a multitude of ball games despite Baltic temperatures, blizzards and brutal hangovers. College sport is resurgent. At Hatfield, one of Durham’s smaller colleges, there are no fewer than six football teams. Collingwood’s football club go all the way down to a legendary ‘I’ team (that’s nine teams). If we assume that each team has two substitutes, that’s 117 CCAFC members. These 117, along with all college sport clubs, prop up college bars (and perhaps the whole brewing industry of the UK) by drinking their bodyweight in alcohol every Wednesday on a social before heading to Lloyds or Loveshack.
Thanks to their subsidised Yank contingent, Durham Lacrosse recently crushed Loughborough, widely known as the premier sporting university in the country, 23-1, in the BUCS final. You can’t argue that they aren’t successful. But it is success for success’s sake – the players (to quote Mean Girls) ‘don’t even go here!’, or at least are generally not drawn from the ranks of ordinary Durham students. It’s not really Durham, but rather America that has won this final. And whilst I can’t speak for everyone, a successful Lacrosse team isn’t why I came to Durham. Even if our Lacrosse team are the Usain Bolts or Jessica Ennises of their sport, attendance figures at their games suggest that the vast majority of us could not care less.
In my opinion, Team Durham should re-consider their priorities. Buying Wayne Rooney (or his Lacrosse equivalent) might well bring success to Durham, but it is irrelevant to most students. The only University sport that consistently attracts significant interest is rugby, who play their big games at Durham City Rugby Club, presumably because the majority of pitches at Maiden Castle are so poor. If there has been £1m of investment in rugby as there has been in rowing, it’s hard to see where.
But it’s not just a question of reassessing the sport that money goes to; more money needs to trickle down to ‘grass-roots’ sport at college level. If I sound like I’m anti University-sport, I’m not. Genuinely. Team Durham sports players pursue the admirable goals of elite performance and fitness and are all excellent athletes (perhaps with the exceptions of the DU Pool and DU Darts teams). But theirs are small and exclusive clubs, an irrelevance to most of us who do not have the skills to join even if we wanted to.
College sport clubs welcome freshers en masse into an inclusive fraternity. You don’t have to be ridiculously keen or talented; you barely even have to play the sport they are dedicated to, as the physiques of many ‘social members’ suggest. You give your all and enjoy yourself, and then go and get drunk afterwards.
The news of yet more sporting investment in Durham is welcome – a proposed new rubber crumb pitch more welcome still – but who will get the chance to use this facility? The evidence suggests that it will be just another expensive irrelevance to most of us. Though college football teams are supposed to get one game on the rubber crumb each year, many of us find our chance to grace Team Durham’s hallowed rubber turf snatched away as the University re-allocated their resources to “more important” University level matches.
Whilst DUBC make use of their £1m rowing tank, the rest of us play football or rugby on pitches resembling the Somme, circa 1916 – if we’re lucky enough that our match hasn’t been cancelled. If Team Durham will insist on building rowing tanks, how about a small fence by the river to stop countless college balls from trickling tamely into the depths of the Wear? Free aerobics classes for all? A set of cricket nets that you don’t get kicked out of if you’re not a University cricket player? Such measures would not cost the earth (or even £1m) and would enhance the lives of many more students than an elite rowing tank.
Photographs: Durham University