Ignore the statistics pumped out so far this week about the Olympic Games and Britain’s quest for 48 medals in the coming 16 days of high-octane sporting action.
Here’s a set of stats much closer to home:
- London is a city of more than 6 million people and is host to the Greatest Show on Earth.
- Swimming offers the second greatest number of available medals of all the sports at the Olympics.
- There are just two Londoners in Britain’s Olympic swimming team as events get under way at the Aquatics Centre.
- And here’s a fact that ought to bring unchlorinated tears to the eyes of any Croydon-based swimming coach or parent, or new-found sports fan: this Olympic City has only the same number of indoor Olympic-sized pools as Warsaw in Poland, Cairo in Egypt or Nairobi in Kenya.
The main pool at Crystal Palace is so old that when it was first built, in the mid-1960s, it measured 55 yards in length, only being adjusted to a “modern” 50 metres after main construction.
The eight-lane pool has served this part of the capital for almost 50 years, the home of numerous elite swimming training squads from across south London, where Olympic greats such as Shane Gould once competed in annual, all-star Coca-Cola meets, and where national and regional championships were long staged.
In more recent times, the Palace’s position of primacy as the country’s swimming competition venue has been overtaken by newer pools elsewhere in England. Yet it has remained a vital, and rare, training facility for London’s, and Britain’s, swimmers with Olympian ambitions – not just in the water, but also in the gyms on the floor below, and out on the grass and roads around the National Sports Centre.
While Croydon does have some borough-owned pools, none are of 50 metres length, the size of pools used at Olympic Games since 1908 – another sporting benchmark established by a previous London Games – and it is telling that our leading local swimming club, Croydon Amphibians, have tended to prefer to book lane time in a couple of privately owned pools for its teaching and training sessions.
This dearth of publicly available facilities for a key Olympic sport within the capital city was demonstrated starkly five years ago, when overdue and very necessary renovation works at Crystal Palace discovered dangerous asbestos lining in the ceiling area.
This prompted the immediate closure of the swimming and diving pools. London’s only operating 50-metre pool was then a six-lane facility in Ealing. For divers, the nearest training facility was Sheffield.
One of the rare Londoners in the British Olympic swimming team this week, and a real gold medal prospect, Ellen Gandy, grew up in Bromley and for half her life had spent seemingly half her time in the water in the Crystal Palace pool. She and her family came up with a radical solution: they moved to Australia.
It was a massive sacrifice for the whole Gandy family, after their daughter had trained under Beckenham Swimming Club’s Tony Beckley from the age of eight. Was it worth it? Gandy, who is now 20, won the silver medal at the gruelling 200 metres butterfly at the 2011 world championships. A year before the Olympics. In London. Good timing is a key component for butterfly swimmers.
While Gandy knuckled down to train in the Queensland sunshine with one of the world’s acknowledged leading swim programmes, her old coach Beckley was left behind trying to organise training sessions in “borrowed” pool space at South Norwood, Trinity School and St Joseph’s College.
“Things were pretty desperate,” Beckley said. “It will crucified us as a club.”
“We got to a situation where we had to tell youngsters, some of them with potential of making it into the 2012 Olympic team, that they can’t train.”
For former European and Commonwealth diving champion Chris Snode, the fate of his diving club was even more drastic. Denied any training fees for a year, Snode’s Crystal Palace Diving Institute lost at least £25,000 in a single year.
“We ended up where we just couldn’t afford to pay the rent anymore,” Snode said.
Pete Waterfield, a silver medallist in the synchro diving at the 2004 Athens Games, who is to compete at the London Olympics as Tom Daley’s partner, and Blake Aldridge, who did the synchro diving event with Daley in Beijing in 2008, were both products of CPDI.
Beckley accepted the Gandy family’s decision with equanimity: “There’s no question that she has better facilities there than we were able to offer.”
Gandy has no regrets about heading Down Under. “Being around that kind of environment constantly really helped me to develop as a younger swimmer,” she said.
“I regularly train with Leisel Jones and Shayne Reese and it‘s fantastic being around these top world class swimmers. I learned loads from them and it is such a great experience training with them all the time.”
Gandy had long been marked out as a potential world-beater: in 2007, when aged 15, she won three gold medals at the European Youth Olympic festival. But it was all achieved in spite of the facilities than thanks to them.
“We’ve coped with the situation,” Beckley said, “but for a long time we were at a standstill in terms of lane space and recruitment. Kids wanted to join, they want to take up the sport, but we can’t accept them.”
So what of the Olympic “legacy” after the Games are over for south London swimmers and their coaches such as Snode and Beckley?
The £330 million spent on the highly designed Olympic Aquatics Centre at Stratford could have been better spent on building four or five 50-metre pools around the capital, Beckley believes. Free swimming schemes only served to increase demands for swim lessons and sessions with which the clubs at Crystal Palace could barely cope, putting even more pressure on pool time for their elite squads in the run-up to the London Games.
“The pools wanted our lanes back, and we had no where else to go,” Beckley said.
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