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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 May 2007, 19:56 GMT 20:56 UK
The 2012 X Factor
By Alistair Magowan

Back in February, British Olympic legend Sir Steven Redgrave launched an appeal for tall, sporty types with a hankering for Olympic glory in 2012.

It was not an open-ended appeal - the glory on offer was in handball, rowing and volleyball, and you had to be between 16 and 25 years old, 6ft 3in or taller for a man and 5ft 11in or taller for a woman.

Even so, 4,800 people answered Sir Steve's "Sporting Giants" call, a level of interest that came as a surprise to UK Sport, the body responsible for elite sport in this country.

Chicago Bulls' Luol Deng
The NBA are sending their stars (to the Olympics) and we have to compete with that

GB basketball's Tony Garbelotto

Now, just over two months later, the people who told fibs about their height, nationality or sporting prowess have been found out and 150 potential handball players will be put through their paces over the bank holiday weekend in Nottingham to see if they can make it to the next stage.

To the layman this sounds like a television talent show. To UK Sport it is "targeted talent identification", and one of many schemes aimed at improving Team GB's chances of reaching its goal of fourth place in the medal table at London 2012.

Fair enough. But given the amount of interest in these three "minority sports", what about a public recruitment drive for the likes of athletics, basketball or swimming?

Chelsea Warr, a performance consultant for UK Sport, explained that creating a sports star is just not that simple - a sporting X Factor would be too crude a tool for unearthing genuine talent.

Alistair Magowan

"The reason why Sporting Giants happened was because it grouped three sports together which had similar talent characteristics - in this case height," said Warr.

"If you go to the top level in these sports, you don't see many short people. It's the number one filter before you look at anything else.

"But even in the second, third and fourth rounds of testing, which would probably go on for six months, it would start to get very specific.

"X Factor sounds good but lacks the detail, focus and sport-specific nature of current talent identification schemes."

In other words, there is nothing wrong with golden dreams but UK Sport has to be realistic about where it spends our money - on speculative trawls for hidden jewels, or targeted investment in tested ability.

As Warr admitted, more than 90% of Britain's 2012 Olympic athletes are already in the system.

Rebecca Romero
Rebecca Romero successfully transferred from rowing to cycling
But since the launch of Sporting Giants, Warr has had representatives from basketball, canoeing, netball, water polo and even cricket all knocking at her door.

With London still five years away, these sports have not given up on the idea of finding the ones that got away. Whether a Sporting Giants-type scheme is right for them, however, is another question.

UK Sport and its partners are already pushing "talent transfer" programmes where you redirect somebody with transferable skills to a discipline better suited to their abilities.

Rebecca Romero is a case in point. She won a silver medal as a rower in Athens but switched to cycling soon after and claimed a silver medal at the recent World Track Championships.

Powerful legs, impressive lung capacity, proven willingness to train - she now has a great chance of gold in Beijing in her new sport.

But it isn't always this straightforward. The chance of finding someone messing about on a basketball court and getting them to a level where they could line up for Great Britain alongside NBA star Luol Deng is extremely slim, according to Tony Garbelotto, assistant coach to the GB basketball team.

"We would love to do something like Sporting Giants," he told BBC Sport.

"But I don't believe you could take someone who hadn't played the game before and in five years get them to a level where they could compete in 2012.

"We're trying to compete with a global sport, the NBA is sending its stars (to the Olympics) and we have to try and compete with that somehow.

"Trying to find players through a talent show would be great for the long term, but truly it would be a one in a million if we found someone with the genetics, athletic ability, skills and the attitude to train every single day."

There have, of course, been examples of sporting talent ID shows before.

The BBC screened Born To Win back in 2003. It was not a ratings winner but it did help the winners move onto the next step in their sporting careers.

Amongst the 5,000 youngsters who applied, winners Garth Chamberlain and Louise Bloor were already involved in their respective sports - rugby and athletics.

Bloor, 21, still competes for Trafford AC and the scholarship she won helped her triumph in the long jump at the under-23 national championships last year, while Chamberlain earned a contract with London Wasps.

Louise Bloor
You might still pick up good talent which is doing sport already but maybe doing the wrong event

"Born To Win" contestant Louise Bloor
Although she has since suffered a stress fracture in her back, Bloor said the grant has been a massive help and would support a return of the programme in time for the 2012 Olympics.

But she believes its biggest benefit might be in pointing people already involved in sport in the right direction rather than extracting an unknown from the masses - more transfer than identification.

Whether or not a TV show is the best way to improve talent-spotting, the idea of people slipping through the net is something that worries those involved in British sport.

"We are far from happy about the journey from grass roots to the top level," said Garbelotto.

"We sometimes lose track of the English kids who go to high school in America. Some people forget they've gone.

"We want to put together a talent ID programme but there isn't currently such a mechanism to find young British players."

Even UK Sport admits that the talent-spotting picture is mixed.

"Some sports are very good and have well-oiled machines," said Warr. "And there are some sports that need a lot of help and support.

"We're working with both to make sure our best guys are even better. And we're helping the sports coming out of the nursery to scale up their learning and thinking really quickly.

"It's early days and there's a lot of work to be done, but it's looking promising."

British handball eyes 2012 glory
28 Feb 07 |  Olympics 2012
2012 talent search gets under way
13 Jul 06 |  Olympics 2012
Tall athletes targeted for 2012
27 Feb 07 |  Olympics 2012
BOA bullish on 2012 medal target
20 Feb 07 |  Olympics 2012
Get into handball
12 Oct 05 |  Other Sport...
Bulldozing for London
17 Nov 06 |  Olympics 2012


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