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Olympic treat for Tonbridge

Author : Tim Fryer

29 June 2012

The track and sports centre

In all there will be about 15000 athletes attending both the Olympics and Paralympics. All of these athletes want to make the best preparations possible and in the final weeks before the games this involves having top facilities at their disposal in the UK. Tim Fryer went to one such venue to find out how they were preparing to accommodate the Australian track athletes

Tonbridge School is home to 780 boys during school term times, about 60% on a boarding basis. They benefit from some fantastic facilities that range from the Hogwarts-esque central building, a gothic Victorian structure, to far more recent additions such as the 370-seat EM Forster Theatre.

The school also boasts a sports centre, opened in 2008, and extensive sports grounds within the 150-acre site. The quality of the sports facilities and in particular the athletics track resulted in it being selected by the Australian athletics team to be their temporary training home before moving to the Olympic Village during the games themselves.

Also at the school for pre-games build-up will be the judo team from Belarus, although its complete delegation (including all support/management/coaches etc) will be far smaller than Athletics Australia’s probable travelling party of about 80. Also the judo teams have the attraction of the nearby Tonbridge Judo Club (run by former Olympian Chris Bowles) for their training and so the school’s role for them is more that of a hotel than a training facility.

Facilities that work for schoolboys is not necessarily going to work for an international athletics team, so why did Athletics Australia choose Tonbridge School from a host of other options? Matt Parker, manager of the Tonbridge School Centre, explained: “I think the facilities on the sporting side shout quality in terms of the fabric of the building and the way it looks and feels. Although reasonably close to Stratford, it is its own little world at Tonbridge School and they can be reasonably secluded from the outside world. Eric Hollingsworth, the High Performance Director [of Athletics Australia], was very keen that the whole athletics team stayed on one campus. So there had to be facilities for the whole team, whether that’s distance runners, or track and field athletes and I think in the past they have been split up with different specialisms at different sites. I guess at the end of the day it is the School and the staff that say we can deliver this. You can have the best facilities in the world but if you have an ambivalent attitude then it is not going to work.”

The first step in the process was for Tonbridge School to register with the Sports Development Unit of Kent County Council who then visited all ‘volunteer’ facilities and advised interested teams what venues might be most suitable. There was no formal ‘tick-box’ requirements to host such teams, it was down to the visiting teams to satisfy themselves that any venue would be suitable and this can vary depending on size of team and who are the medal prospects.

Australian delegations visited several times, signing a commitment to use the School in Autumn 2010. They also came in the summer of 2011 with a small group of athletes who were competing at the Crystal Palace Grand Prix and about to head off to the World Athletics Championships in Deagu, Korea. They stayed at the School, used the track and facilities and used it as a test for this year so that any issues could be ironed out.

Suitability for such a purpose may seem almost inevitable - part of the plan almost - with the proximity of the site to Stratford and that it was Lord Sebastian Coe who opened the Tonbridge School Centre in 2008. However, the plans for the new centre were already on the drawing board before the London Olympic bid was won. When opening the facility, Lord Coe is recorded as having said: “Fantastic. The first word that passed my lips as I came up the drive was ‘Wow!’”.

A reaction presumably shared by the Australians. Eric Hollingsworth commented: “Tonbridge is the perfect base for us to hone our final preparations as we go to battle with the world and of course our old rival, England. It’s the UK’s warmest pocket, the facilities are world-class and it’s just 40 minutes from London. The Tonbridge School and Kent team are flexible and will work with us to ensure our athletes have everything they need before stepping onto the world stage.”

From a facilities management perspective, does the arrival of such high profile guests provide any special challenges beyond those presented by its everyday clientele – especially with the requirement for sporting excellence? “They don’t want five star accommodation, they wouldn’t be coming here if they did,” stated Parker. “They want facilities that are clean, and the services that will receive are really good, but I think they are focussed on what they are here to do. They are very prescriptive in some areas - for example there is a menu that they have produced that says what they want and what day of the week they want it. In other areas they are more relaxed, as long as the facilities are there and available that’s fine, they will just crack on.”

Although not five star, the boarding houses that will be used by the visiting teams have all been completely refurbished over the last two or three years. “They all have very nice bathrooms and are very nicely fitted out – a really good standard of accommodation,” said the School’s Head of Marketing Nicola Berry. “This has been part of a five-year plan to refurbish all accommodation.”

Last summer’s visit did highlight some minor points, such as the need for better broadband connections to be available in the boarding houses, but the exercise seems to have worked more effectively in satisfying the Australians that they would be getting what they needed. They will not, for example, be bringing their own chefs. Catering, like every other service at Tonbridge School from carpet fitting to cleaning, is an inhouse operation. In fact, by adding part-timers to the 450 support staff there is approximately as many staff as there are pupils at the School.

The catering team typically prepare 2000 meals a day during term time. While this slows down considerably during holidays it does not stop as there are always courses and activities going on. Berry commented: “The catering here really is very good. If the Australians have provided us with what they want then I am sure there will be no issue in meeting that. I do know that the catering staff are excited about the prospect of having the athletes to stay because it is a once in a lifetime opportunity for them.”

This last point is an interesting one. For many people the Olympics is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something to the best of their ability, and it is an attitude that exists throughout the School. “Right from the headmaster down we are all very excited,” Berry continued. “Obviously none of us has any experience of hosting something like this, but that is the case for everybody in the UK. It is not everyday we get the chance to rub shoulders with Olympians.”

Mark Organ, the School’s Assistant Bursar, and Parker are the ‘project managers’ for the pre-Olympic training camps. At Easter they bought together a whole host of people including catering, security, grounds department, sports centre staff and everyone who may be involved in the project. Parker said: “For all that it has been Mark and I behind this there is a big team at the School who will be delivering it.”

The main lure for the Australian team is of course the sports facilities, and in this respect Parker has had to make some changes to fit the needs of the Australians. “The athletics track will be cleaned and repainted just before they arrive,” he said. “By agreement with the Australians we have relaid the run-up surface to the pole vault [something that current Olympic Champion Steve Hooker will appreciate] and the jumps with a surface that is called Mondo, which is the surface that will be at the Olympic Park.

“We will be creating a separate fitness gym for them. That will be doing two things. One it will be different equipment than is in here, which is a gym used by our members [the Centre doubles up as a private members leisure club] so we will essentially be creating a temporary fitness gym just for the Australians. A few of them may use the pool, especially if they have got injury concerns they might go and do some deep water jogging. Sally Pearson who was here last summer did a fair amount in the pool.” Pearson is a hurdler and one of Australia’s best medal prospects – she was named World Athlete of the Year, along with Usain Bolt, for 2011.

There is also the option of the sports hall if the weather is really bad and Parker is also creating an ‘ice bath room’, another of the additional items that emerged during last summer’s visit.

The ice bath room is a sophisticated treatment room. Parker explained: “Its not just a bucket with ice! We are knocking two changing rooms together to create a treatment room with a physio couch in plus ice baths. What we realised last summer was that a athletes use ice baths a lot. We did just use one of our changing rooms last summer, but we decided to create a dedicated room. This will be used by Tonbridge Athletics Club going forward – we have had discussions with them, possibly certain teams at the school might want to use it for recovery, and anyone else who comes to use the centre – it is just another facility that we have going forward.”

‘Going forward’ is one of the key drivers of these Olympics – the legacy aspect. I asked if this was this one of the reason’s why Tonbridge School got involved in the first place? “Yes. There were facilities that we saw we could develop and improve. I think from a sports facility manager perspective I think what we have done here is a good legacy from the Olympics. And there is also a legacy for the community. There is a groundswell of interest in local schools, in local clubs and we are working - alongside the facility changes and improvements - a programme of community activities whereby school children, local athletics clubs can get involved with the visit. That could be spectating, or a sports fair that we are putting on with 30 sports clubs in the area to focus children on this centre during that Olympic period.”

It is clear that Tonbridge School as a facility, and the wider community around it, are in for an exciting summer.

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