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Sport vs studies: can a balance be found? 

First and foremost, Oxford is known for its academic rigor. The University’s prestige is found within its own history and influence, both of which are rooted in the academics of many political and notable figures. However, from 1896 to 2020, a considerable 170 Olympic medals have been won by Oxford alumni in a whole range of sports. This certainly is impressive, but is it possible to uphold this standard of achievement in sport whilst still studying at one of the most academically challenging universities? 

Polly Maton, a track and field athlete, was selected to represent Paralympics GB at  Tokyo 2020 whilst reading History and Politics at Oxford. Having previously  competed at the 2017 London World Championships and the Paralympics GB in Rio  2016, Maton was able to continue balancing both her academic and sporting  successes at Oxford. Speaking to Oxford University Sport on how to balance sport  and academia she stated: 

“I have always been a strong believer that the two genuinely aid each other. Exercise  is a great way to take a break from studying and is likely to stimulate your brain for  when you return…Generally, I think knowing your priorities is key, as well as  planning.” 

Studies from both the universities of Strathclyde and Dundee found that intensive exercise boosts the performance of teenagers in Maths and English. Likewise, a study from UCL noted that physical exercise releases proteins in the brain that can help improve memory and increase cognitive performance. Therefore, studies and sport seem to go hand in hand. Due to the University’s increased focus on the mental health and welfare of its students, low-pressure sport at Oxford is becoming more  celebrated as a great way to de-stress from the pressure of work, but how does this fare when a high level of performance is expected in both studies and sport? 

Michael Allison, a 2nd year Physicist at Oxford who has competed for GB multiple times in athletics, including at both world and European U20 championships, spoke to Cherwell about his experiences. He shared: 

“Balancing studies and sport has been difficult, and I can only imagine it will continue  to get harder. I would say you need to be able to prioritise your goals and sometimes  this means being ‘boring’.”

Clearly trying to succeed in both your studies and sport is challenging and takes a lot  of sacrifice, but has Oxford provided any support for these students? Again when speaking to Cherwell, Michael Allison describes this aspect of his experience: 

“My tutors have been very supportive, are always asking how training is going and  they have been understanding.” 

“I am seeing improvements in the way Oxford views sport, however the support I get  is somewhat limited to what I could get from other universities. I am enormously  grateful to Vincent’s club from which I received a financial award which has been  enormously useful and I would encourage any top athletes at Oxford to apply for  them.” 

One thing Oxford certainly has access to is facilities. Vincent’s, a private members’  club in Oxford, provides a space for students who are exceptional athletes, with many alumni who went on to compete at the Olympics being members. There is a sense of community provided amongst these student-athletes. Nor does Oxford lack training facilities. Iffley Sports Centre is the epicentre of Oxford sport, most notably known for where Sir Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954. In 2018 it became apparent to Jon Roycrob, Director of Sport, that Oxford was not providing adequate sporting prevision, juxtaposing the world-class education provided by the institution. Therefore, in June 2018, the Acer Nethercott Sports Centre facility was opened, providing Oxford with a four-court sports hall, new changing rooms, and the Gallie-Lewis-Dean Gym. This development was funded by more than 450  donors who contributed a total of £4.3 million towards this new building. This facility has provided more clubs with increased training hours and shows the realisation of  the importance of sport in the image of Oxford.  

There may be a shift in how Oxford views the importance of sport for these elite  athletes, as from the 1st of January 2023 Professor Irene Tracey became the Vice  Chancellor of Oxford. Tracey is looking to further Oxford sport so that more funding and support can be provided in order to align the performance of students in both their degree and sport. Perhaps, then, there is a future for these hybrid students  who want to pursue the best of both worlds. The aim to integrate both sport and  studies into the internationally recognised image Oxford portrays is a challenging one. But frequently praised for willingness to take on the hard tasks, Tracey  certainly encourages a wider recognition of these students so that a balance can be found between sport and studies. Only time will tell the outcome, but it’s definitely looking hopeful.

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