Athletics: Scouting for talent at Cuppers

Eammon Katter, Hurdler for Cambridge University Athletics Club

No stress, no nerves, just fun – that’s the aim of Cuppers athletics. The first competition after the long summer break, run by the University Athletics Club, eases Cambridge’s various runners, discus throwers and hurdlers back into their chosen sport, gently reintroducing the concept of training to those who spent the summer on a beach or in an office, and giving those who’ve never had the opportunity before a chance to try out different disciplines. Victory brings glory to your College, failure prompts a consolatory pint in the pub. There’s no Varsity-level perfectionism here.

Athletics may not have the mass appeal of rowing or rugby but the Cambridge club is old and prides itself on its history and traditions. It is inclusive and open, and, in contrast to some other sports, views the Colleges as a talent pool from which to fish for Varsity-level athletes.

Cuppers is a huge part of this process: 17 events run on one day in October and it’s open to all athletes at every College, regardless of ability or experience. CUAC organises the event, booking the track, ensuring there are independent timers and recruiting collegiate representatives. People just come down and have a go, there’s a great vibe and everyone is welcome. The Chariots of Fire effect may inspire some to don their running shoes, but others are just curious, and still others are looking to be talent-spotted by University captains for a place in the Varsity squad.

I came late to the Cambridge athletics scene after a mixed history of inter-school competitions in my native Australia. Cambridge was a fresh start for me and, after a term of settling in, my search for a new challenge led me to the door of the University Athletics club. They were searching for a 400m hurdler at the time, an event I’d never tried before, and tentatively suggested I give it a go. Competition for Varsity places is usually cut-throat and the club aims to match people with the right event early in the season; perhaps it was my long legs, perhaps it was their desperation, but after a long summer of training and competing I was presented with my team ribbon and given a coveted place in the Varsity squad.

Last year I captained the St Edmund’s College team. Though one of the smaller colleges, we managed to get half a dozen runners together. Some had run at school level, some wanted to test old injuries, others just wanted to give it a go. Each competitor is placed in a division to suit their abilities so no one feels out of their depth. It’s a very supportive atmosphere and there’s always good applause for everyone, no matter how slowly they’re going. The set-up can seem quite daunting for new runners; starting blocks, painted track and lycra are all pretty foreign to anyone who hasn’t competed before, but we make an effort to put people at ease and everyone goes away having had a good time. Some people choose to continue training together afterwards and, though the event is taken lightly, it builds a collegiate rapport that’s very important amongst students.

Out of the 23 colleges in the men’s competition last October, Eddies came ninth with 60 points, not a bad result, though there’s some room for improvement. King’s won with 171 points and the last-placed colleges accrued only one point each, which gives you a sense of the breadth of involvement. To be honest it’s not really about the points anyway. It is, admittedly, a contest, but it is much harder to work up a competitive spirit against a fellow Cambridge student than it is against an Oxford student. We are essentially all in the same squad at the end of the day and it’s a great way of meeting new people in your college.

For those who shine at Cuppers, great things can follow. Last year a nervous fresher turned up saying she’d done a little bit of long jump at school but wasn’t particularly confident and really wasn’t sure she ought to be there. She went on to jump an extraordinary distance and was immediately recruited by the women’s captain for the University squad. She not only won the event for her College but also became a key player in CUAC. And that’s the beauty of the Cuppers system: it’s one of the few events at Cambridge where Colleges meet and compete across the board, it gives everyone a level playing field (no pun intended) from which to prove themselves, and an opportunity to have a go at something new.

For more information about the University Athletics Club, visit www.cuac.org.uk