By Matt Styles
It was March 2020 and the college sport season was drawing to a close. Plenty was left unresolved in various league and cup competitions as hundreds of teams looked forward to finishing their season’s in style, with finalists in particular excited to cap off years of rigorous planning, physical toil and emotional investment. Then along came the coronavirus.
For a short time matches continued at Maiden Castle amid speculation of a nationwide lockdown, which saw a surreal period of tentative hand-shaking at the final whistle and a sense of dread buried latently in the mind, until Durham students eventually got their marching orders, swiftly packed up their things, and returned to their respective corners of the globe.
This was a devastating blow. College sport is, without question, one of Durham’s crowning jewels, and for many its finest institution. With its countless benefits on physical and mental wellness widely documented, you quickly run out of superlatives when describing its profusion of positive qualities.
However, the endurance of a certain pandemic represents a major threat to this joyous and colourful landscape, the likes of which it has never encountered before. It would be a crying shame if incoming students were unable to enjoy a full college sport experience, though tragically it seems as though its complexion will be radically altered this year.
With government advice changing like the weather, the co-ordinators of college sport have endured a logistical nightmare trying to shape plans for the coming year. They are consequently unable to give out concrete information, however Experience Durham director Quentin Sloper was able to tell Palatinate: “all things being equal we are really hopeful that college sport can be a shining light for many students this term – we are doing all we can to get there!”
We can only hope so, because college sport is a truly unique and special thing; possessive of a transcendental quality which few things in life are able to replicate. It is the lifeblood of the university, and Covid or no Covid consistently proves a ‘shining light’ for the overwhelming majority of the student population.
Right now it is fruitless to dwell on the uncertain and ever-changing present, so let’s take a trip into the past as a means of shining a light on what will hopefully be reclaimed in coming months, and pin down exactly what has made students fall in love with college sport over the years.
Quite simply, no one combines sporting and academic excellence like Durham. With a student participation rate of 75%, the university has a higher percentage of physically active students than any other institution in Britain, along with the largest internal participation programme.
There are over 700 teams across 18 sports, ranging from mixed lacrosse, to rowing, to ultimate frisbee, which makes the college sport structure one of the largest and most diverse intramural programmes in the world, with recreational activities, open to both staff and students, engaging a further 2,000 participants.
College sport directors take pride in the programme’s inclusivity since there is a warm embrace of all abilities and no major financial barriers. Varying levels within each sport means that there is genuinely something for everyone, and this is immaculately demonstrated by Collingwood’s 14, (yes, 14!) men’s football teams that stretch from the As right down to the Ns.
Every weekend, like clockwork, thousands of students ordinarily hit the tracks, crumbs, asphalts and sports halls down at Maiden Castle – the University’s sports park – which boasts state-of-the-art facilities following around £35m worth of refurbishments in recent years. These facilities are shared by DU teams, many of whom compete at the highest level of their respective sports, and is also now home to Durham Women’s FC, who are in the process of having a new purpose-built stadium built on site.
Removed from the city centre, Maiden Castle provides the perfect form of escapism from any academic pressures which may build up throughout the week. The scenery couldn’t be more picturesque, with the River Wear slicing directly through the heart of it. The site is also watched over by a thick forest of towering oak trees, which was utilised as a promontory fort during the Iron Age.
Centuries later Maiden Castle remains synonymous with battle, with Durham’s collegiate system making sporting fixtures all the more fiercely contested. If you look closely you will find age-old rivalries between particular colleges and exciting narratives found therein, with such a competitive spirit extending out to the annual varsities against York and Loughborough.
The best part about all this is that you can spectate in the stands and spur on your college in events such as the Floodlit, which invariably generate carnival atmospheres. Dirt cheap cider in hand you blare out chants from the college hymn sheet, puffing out sub-arctic clouds of air while you do so, as frost begins to coat the surface of the artificial turf. You watch members of your college etch their names into folklore and, when all is done, flock back the cosy fug of the college bar as celebrations continue long into the night.
Action on the pitch is invariably supplemented by an incredible social scene off it, which only catalyses the process of making friends. There exists a real camaraderie and community spirit in college sides, and very quickly you begin to feel a real sense of belonging and self-worth within a team unit.
Ultimately, college sport provides the ideal conditions to come out of your shell and develop leadership skills, which makes it no surprise to learn that a Sheffield Hallam study estimated that students who participate in college sport earn an average of £5,824 more than those who don’t.
Having been involved in college sport for three years now this editor cannot recommend getting involved enough, as it can only enrich your Durham experience and accelerate your personal development. From late comebacks to odds-defying cup runs, I simply cannot articulate some of the emotions I have experienced down at Maiden Castle.
But please, don’t take my word for it. Pandemic permitting, I implore you to go out and experience college sport for yourself, exploit it for all its riches and immerse yourself in the culture of your college. Even if you don’t play a sport, there are ample opportunities to coach, volunteer, officiate, or even just support, so go boldly and feast on the wide menu of possibilities, take the bull by the horns, step outside your comfort zone and discover new talents you never knew you had.
I am aware that this call to action comes with a sizeable asterisk for now, but don’t let the uncertainty deter you from signing up to as much as you can at fresher’s fairs in anticipation of a better tomorrow. While it pains me and so many others to see the coronavirus cast a dark cloud over something so vital to the wider Durham experience, fear not. One fine morning college sport will return in all its glory, so just make sure that you’re there when it does.