City of Sheffield celebrates 25th anniversary of Varsity

Andy Cox, Director of Sports and Physical Activity at the University of Sheffield writes about the return of Varsity, and how Sheffield Universities' annual sporting event celebrates the city and region’s health, diversity, and community spirit

Two students celebrating at the Sheffield Varsity ice hockey game

Written by Andy Cox and published in the Sheffield Telegraph.

There’s nothing quite like sport to bring people together. Over the last few years sport has offered us a necessary escape from the turmoil caused by the pandemic, from the rollercoaster journey of the men’s England football team to the Euro finals, to Emma Raducanu’s electrifying win at the US Open.

In Sheffield, we have a very proud sporting history. And there is one Sheffield sporting event that might not attract the attention of the world’s media like the Snooker Championships, or is as renowned as the Steel City derby, but is just as fiercely-fought.

Sheffield Varsity is a head-to-head battle between the sports teams of the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University. This March, Varsity will take place for the first time since 2019 - a triumphant return for one of the city’s biggest and most vibrant sporting events.

The competition began in 1997, when sporting teams from the city's two universities competed against each other in the first coordinated tournament of its kind. From there it snowballed, and now Sheffield Varsity is believed to be one of the biggest Varsity competitions in the UK.

Around 1,000 students from both the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam take part in over 70 sporting events in venues across the city, cheered on by more than 15,000 spectators. Competitors will take part in over 30 sports, from boxing to rowing, athletics to ice hockey, and waterpolo to lacrosse. Sheffield Varsity is the city’s own Olympic games, with the team scoring the most points overall claiming victory for the year.

Varsity - women's hockey celebration

For two weeks each year, both campuses turn the colours of their respective teams: black and gold for the University of Sheffield, and maroon for Team Hallam. The fierce competitive nature between the teams is clear, and the electric atmosphere of the tournament cements it as a milestone in the Sheffield student experience.

It also gives us a chance to showcase the breadth and quality of the sports facilities across our city. Fixtures include football at Hillsborough, boxing at the Octagon, mountain biking at Wharncliffe Woods, netball at the English Institute of Sport, swimming at Ponds Forge and the tournament’s highlight, ice hockey at  Sheffield Arena. The ice hockey match marks the tournament’s thrilling climax, taking place at a sold out Sheffield Arena, making it the most attended ice hockey match outside of North America.

University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam students playing ice hockey as part of Sheffield Varsity

Varsity fever isn’t isolated to just the athletes and spectators. Forge Media, the student radio, newspaper and tv broadcasters, lead on the coverage of the two-week tournament. They televise the fixtures live into the SU bars, with commentary and interviews included, and produce a special edition newspaper pullout covering the fixtures and results. Year on year Forge Media receive awards for their outstanding coverage, which not only tells the story of Varsity, but shows the unifying nature of the tournament, which captivates all corners of university communities.

Varsity is more than a sporting event, just as sport is more than simply physical activity. During the pandemic we’ve seen more than ever how important sport, getting outside and getting our hearts pumping is to our mental health and general wellbeing.

Our student sports teams take the basic premise of sport being good for you, and run with it. For decades they have led the way in offering support to the local community through volunteering and fundraising work. For example, Global Community Football is an initiative where refugees and asylum seekers can join students to play football matches at Goals, giving them a social outlet, improving English skills and confidence, and helping them feel part of the wider community.

In February this year, the University of Sheffield Tennis club was awarded the Yorkshire University of the Year award at the LTA Tennis Awards 2022, which recognises the achievements of clubs which dedicate time and energy to making tennis accessible for all. The club also participates in numerous charity events throughout the year - most notably, its annual ‘rallyathon’, where members hold a continuous rally for 12 hours to raise money for charity. This year, the chosen charity is FoodCycle Sheffield, who combat food waste, food poverty and loneliness within the local community.

Student sports teams for years have been leading the way in widening access and representation, spearheading campaigns such as This Girl Can, Disability in Sports Week, and LGBT+ campaign Pride In Sport. Their fundraising efforts for charity each year sees them run thousands of miles, attempt world records, host fundraising events and take part in Movember to raise thousands of pounds for a wide range of causes.

From Sheffield’s proud sporting community we’ve been lucky enough to see breakout stars who have made their way to the global stage. No talk of sport in Sheffield would be complete without mention of Jess Ennis-Hill, olympic gold medallist, University of Sheffield graduate, and golden girl of the city. We’re incredibly proud of all our alumni olympians and paralympians including: trampolinist Bryony Page, table tennis champion Dave Wetherill and hockey player Hollie Webbe, who received the University’s Elite Sports Scholarship during her time at the University of Sheffield.

The letters Varsity are written on the Arts Tower

It’s safe to say we are delighted to have Varsity back for its 25th year. After a difficult and turbulent time for us all, sport has prevailed in improving the lives of so many. It has a unique way of unifying diverse communities under one shared passion, and we can’t wait to experience that in full again.

Each athlete taking part in Varsity is required to take the Varsity oath, which ends with “Pride, respect, fair play, and sportsmanship – this is the spirit of Varsity”, something I think we can all take inspiration from.

Andy Cox, Director of Sports and Physical Activity at the University of Sheffield.

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