Sprinter Tiwa Adebayo: University could be doing a lot more to support sport

Finn Ranson 13 November 2017

Sprinter and Alligators’ co-captain Tiwa Adebayo talks CUAC, British Athletics, and the University’s failure to support sport.  

“I don’t think I’ve ever got this level of detailed attention,” Tiwa Adebayo said of her training with Cambridge University Athletics Club. “The coaching is really fantastic. You’ve got coaches that have coached world record holders – Jonny Peacock for example.”

The 100m sprinter Adebayo, now entering her second year studying Theology, is reaping the rewards. In the Varsity match in June she matched her three year long standing PB of 12.8 seconds. “What’s changed the most now is that I’ve added weights to my programme,” she said. “When you’re younger and doing athletics you improve really rapidly just because you’re growing. When you get to this stage, you need to get those marginal gains, things like technique, weights really matter. My training’s got a lot more technical. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at my start. Even though I’ve been doing it since I was like seven, I still have a lot to learn. As an athlete I think you always have a lot to learn. Every race you look back at the video and try break it down and improve it.

“What I really love about CUAC though is that it’s a real team environment. Before athletics was a very personal and individual thing. There was a lot of pressure on me as an individual – nobody else is starting out on that start line with you at the end of the day. It’s great that we all train together as a team.”

Despite a gutting 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Oxford in the summer, CUAC’s worst result since 1999, things are looking up. Cambridge drew with Oxford in the Freshers’ Varsity match last Sunday, and Adebayo was quick to praise the club’s new crop of talent.

“I was so proud of how they all rose to the challenge. A special mention for the girls for their emphatic victory which also saw a match record and Blues standard from Johanna in the javelin! It was a fabulous day and the results leave us in a strong position ahead of indoor varsity [VFEAR] next term as well as of course the Varsity match in Easter term.

“We’ve had a really strong intake this year. Just being at training sessions and seeing how many people have been there. It’s week six now so it’s not like they’ve come for one week and dropped it. They’re dedicated. We’ve got quite a few athletes who are experienced.” Although experience is sometimes not necessarily a prerequisite for success. “The guy that won the 100 and the 200 at Varsity this year had never done athletics before,” she laughed, “He was third year and just decided to come along and was ridiculously fast.”

But with a position on the club committee as Alligators’ co-captain, Adebayo is only too aware of the growing problems the University’s athletics club faces.

“A lot of our conversations have focused around trying to find a sponsor,” she admitted. “We are quite lucky in that we have some money for alumni at the moment, but it’s not sustainable.”

Beneath the shiny veneer of prestige and history – CUAC, for example, is the oldest athletics club in the world – sports clubs across the University are struggling to keep afloat, with the women’s rowing team even losing sponsorship deals this year.

“I think it’s a real shame because if you look at somewhere like Oxford, they have a Uni-wide sponsorship deal,” she said. “I think that’s something that really needs to be put into place at Cambridge. I don’t think it should be the responsibility of each sport to find a sponsor.

“The vice-chancellor of the university recently said that sport is really important and we need it. I don’t think that’s translated across into the way the University treats sport. Everything is student-run and for something that gives the University a lot of publicity and prestige I think they could be doing a lot more.”

Sport is coming at an increasing premium for students as a result – hockey and netball, Adebayo points out, charge upwards of £100 a term. CUAC is unique in charging only £70 in subs for the whole year.

“There’s a lot of disparity between colleges in how much support athletes get. I know at Jesus you get quite a lot of money,” she said to me, “here it’s a bit different and some colleges don’t pay anything.

“I’ve had freshers come to me and say I’ve been selected for this team but I have to pay this much in subs and I haven’t got any money. Someone that’s got to that level of sport – I think colleges should be doing all they can to fund it. There are lots of issues with the sport set-up in Cambridge.” For an institution trying to bat off renewed accusations of elitism with David Lammy’s recent report, sport is becoming dangerously exclusive.

For Adebayo, though, the issue is not just financial – it is also a matter of a lack of empathy. “A tutor at this college has said to one of our freshers that I don’t think you’ll have time to do sport as well as your degree,” she said indignantly. “I know certain tutors of banned their students from rowing. I definitely feel a lot of pressure to prove myself academically because I know if grades slip the first thing they’ll take away is sports. They have the ability to tell me that I can’t do athletics.

“I’ve seen people get taken off college sports teams because of grades. There are sports every year in the Varsity match that have an unnamed player and that’s because that person isn’t actually allowed to participate in sports. I think it’s ridiculous because there could be a number of reasons why you could be slipping academically.”

In light of recent revelations this may come as no surprise. In a controversial email to Queens NatSci freshers, Professor Eugene Terentjev indicated that it was not possible to enjoy a social life and “survive” Natural Sciences. The subject, he stated, “require[s] ALL of your attention and your FULL brain capacity”. Evidently it hasn’t occurred to him that sport can play a crucial role in that.

“If you actually look at the statistics people that are in Blues and sports teams are more likely to get a first,” Adebayo said. “It’s clear that sport really compliments academic study. I don’t think I would be here if wasn’t for sport because it forced me to be disciplined at school. A lot of academic staff here are really insensitive when it comes to that. You come to university to grow as a person as well as do a degree.”

Talk soon turned to the state of British athletics. You might think the last half decade has been something of a golden age – Super Saturday, Mo Farah’s dominance, rising stars like Dina Asher-Smith, Reece Prescod and that extraordinary men’s 4×100 gold medal at the World Championships in the summer. But these moments of magic have been nothing more than a smokescreen. While Adebayo admitted that turn-out at her athletics club rose dramatically post the 2012 Olympics, when I asked her whether she thought British Athletics had capitalised upon the ‘London legacy’, her response was damning.

“To be honest I don’t think so. Things like the Olympic Stadium being sold to West Ham. Why can’t we keep that as an athletics venue? Obviously it wouldn’t bring in as much revenue, but if we’re really committed to furthering athletics in this country we would keep it.” The same might be said of Sheffield’s Don Valley, the flagship athletics venue for the 1991 World Student Games. It was named after Jessica Ennis in 2012, only to be knocked down a year later.

“It’s difficult, I always feel really frustrated with British Athletics in that people are always really good as juniors,” she went on. “You’ve got Jodie Williams for example, I think she won 150 races straight as a junior and was amazing. Then we’ve got people like Harry Aikines-Aryeetey who was world junior champion. I feel like that’s not really converted from a senior perspective, and we just get trounced by Jamaicans and Americans.

“There could definitely be a lot more money put into coaching structures and also funding athletes. My friend is ranked third in the country for hurdles, he goes to Loughborough, and he doesn’t get any funding. It’s so difficult to maintain an athletics career, travelling to competitions, equipment, spikes. I think there could be a lot more support of younger athletes. It’s quite easy to get sponsorship when you reach a certain level but you need money to get to that level.”

Increased participation is all well and good, but you need stars to sustain national interest. The pathway from junior to senior elite competition is perilous; it is also one that less and less women seem to be choosing to go down.  

“Once you get to 16 you get a lot of girls dropping out,” Adebayo noted with concern. “I think a lot of that is to do with body image things. A lot of girls tell me that they don’t want to get bulky. In that respect, as you get older there’s actually fewer people. That’s definitely something I’ve noticed in British athletics and it’s something that I actually think is a real shame.”

Just last month at a ‘Women in Sport’ panel event at the Union, GB sprinter Asha Philip had suggested that gender was not a major issue in professional athletics.

“She’s obviously looking at it from a very elite perspective,” Adebayo shrugged. “I was at a girl’s school, and girls were definitely less likely to engage in sport when boys were around. People were like ‘I don’t want to make a fool of myself in front of boys’. I think at a school kind of level, a less developed level, it does make a real difference.”

Adebayo will soon be back on the track against Oxford in the indoor Varsity match, FEAR, in Lent Term. But all eyes, of course, are ultimately on June. A rigorous training regime in the winter, warm weather training over the Easter vacation, and then honing technique in April – all for the big clash come May, the 144th Varsity Match.

Yet Adebayo simply takes it all in her stride. After all in CUAC, she says, “It’s always a case of training hard and having fun.”