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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 January 2008, 13:11 GMT
Olympic Team GB puts safety first
By Iain Haddow
BBC News

BOA Chief Executive, Simon Clegg
Officials say security is paramount
Aldershot in Hampshire has been the home of the British Army for the past 150 years.

In four years' time, it will be the preparation camp for British athletes competing in the 2012 Olympics in London.

To the untrained eye, Aldershot garrison seems a remarkably relaxed place.

Look around the vast expanses of green space, the sports fields mostly empty under cold January skies, the mundane blocks of flats, the red brick church. You could be forgiven for thinking you are in any British town.

A closer look reveals something altogether different.

By a tidy garage, a group of young men in military uniform are engrossed in conversation.

Olympic and Army officials
Tracksuits meet fatigues at the Aldershot facilities

Running in strict formation around the rugby pitch are about 30 men, also in fatigues. From a distance, their single distinguishing feature is the shaved head of a soldier.

And as we drive past razor wire fencing and turn into the Army's Centre of Sporting Excellence, we come upon a triangular road sign: "Caution: Marching Troops".

But from now on, that warning sign could well read: "Caution: Running Athletes".

In 2012, hundreds of athletes will descend on Aldershot from the four corners of Britain to spend their final weeks training and preparing for the Games, 50 miles away in Stratford.

According to British Olympic Association chief executive, Simon Clegg, British athletes "will be better prepared than at any of the previous Olympic Games".

'Complete package'

"The final two to three weeks before the Games are crucial for preparation and disproportionate in terms of importance to the rest of their training," he says.

"Aldershot offers a complete package; it's the best possible place to accommodate British athletes to compete in the best possible conditions."

Britain's synchronised swimmers
Aldershot is home to Britain's sychronised swimmers

But it's no coincidence that the men and women in tracksuits will be put through their paces alongside the men and women in combat fatigues.

Finding a secure location was a major factor for Britain's Olympic officials.

Apart from the expectations of a host nation on its home athletes, the threat of terrorism places huge pressures on the Game's organisers.

A garrison town with a secure perimeter, manned by checkpoints and easily sealed off in the event of a security alert are obvious advantages that helped swing the decision Aldershot's way.

Specific threat

Add thousands of trained and armed soldiers and military police who are on duty 24 hours a day seven days a week - and the package looks a whole lot more attractive to officials fretting over suicide bombings.

Ultimately, responsibility for the athletes' security at Aldershot will rest with Hampshire police. But the Army's man with responsibility for the South of England, Major General Peter Everson, is under no illusions.

"Security is clearly an issue," he says. "The way we secure ourselves in a military environment will be of real advantage to the police."

In other words, the Army will do the police's job for them.

The 2004 Olympics helped focus minds. "Who knows where the world's going to be in 2012?" says Clegg. "Who knows where we're going to be next year?"

He confirms that the British Olympic team was the specific target of a threat in the run-up to the Athens Games. He would not be drawn on details, but it is thought the threat was linked to the Iraq conflict.

"You will recall the environment four years ago," says Clegg. The security of British athletes "is of paramount importance to Team GB".

Stephanie Twell
Junior world 1500m number one Stephanie Twell trains at Aldershot

But there's another reason that Aldershot beat Bath and Loughborough universities - both renowned for their sporting prowess.

Coincidentally, the garrison is in the middle of a 12 billion upgrade funded jointly by the Ministry of Defence and a private finance initiative.

Thousands of accommodation units are being renovated or built from scratch over the next few years and will provide comfortable surroundings for the 750 British athletes and officials taking part in the 2012 Games.

New sporting facilities include a boxing ring and hockey pitch, on top of the existing gyms, running tracks, training roads and stadiums already in place.

Most of the Olympic disciplines are practised by the Army's home-grown athletes and the national synchronised swimming team already trains at the 50m Olympic pool.

But the overlap between sports and military runs much deeper. Stephanie Twell, 18, was born and brought up in Aldershot.

Inspired while walking

On a bus tour of the Army's sports facilities, the junior world number one in the 1500m points to a huge sports field. "That's where I run," she says, "and that's where I used to live."

Stephanie first got a taste for running while watching soldiers train on a track behind her back garden. She was born and raised in an Army house on Aldershot base; her father is currently stationed in Cyprus.

"I was out with my dad one day walking the dog and he asked me if I'd like to join the running club", says a quietly confident Stephanie. "The rest, as they say, is history."

Elite sports requires the kind of discipline also seen on a military parade ground. As Mr Clegg, puts it, "there's a synergy between the Army with its slogan 'Be the Best' and our aspiring Olympic athletes."

Over 20 soldiers have represented Britain at the Olympics since the 1908 Games, including double gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes.

If the British Olympic Association achieves its aim of finishing fourth in the medals in 2012 with a bit of help from the military, no-one is going to complain.

A look inside the Aldershot Army base

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