Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Olympic Stadium needs football after 2012, not athletics

I find it hard to sympathise with all this hand-wringing going on over the issue of the Olympic Stadium. Whoever wins the bid, be it Tottenham or West Ham, British athletics will receive a new – or newly revamped – stadium which, when you consider the venues they have at the moment has to be seen as a big improvement for the sport.

Over the past few days we have heard various figures in athletics talking about a "broken promise", but the "promise" should never have been made in the first place because it was so unrealistic. Who would fill such a stadium? If you have ever seen an athletics crowd at Gateshead you will know what I am talking about. Without a proper plan ever having been secured for the future of the stadium in the first place it is unsurprising that the sport now finds itself in this mess.

Despite all this, I must admit that I am torn. I loved athletics as a kid. Daley Thompson was my hero. I remember meeting him in a car park at Wimbledon Football Club once and I was absolutely buzzing. When I was young I wanted to represent Great Britain at the Olympics – everyone did, even if they weren't any good at the sport. I wanted to be a high jumper until I was 15, when I chose football, and I still have the old English schools record book.

I'm not sure so many kids feel the same way about athletics these days. My step-daughter is 10 and on every school sports team going, but she never comes home and talks about athletics or 2012. Perhaps it's because we live in the south-west rather than the capital, but she'd rather go to watch Tinie Tempah than see the Olympics.

These days we don't have the same calibre of athletics heroes. The only one I recognise is Jessica Ennis because she's on a billboard opposite Ashton Gate so I see her face every day – and even then I struggle to recall her name. That's terrible because she's a world champion, and yet as much as it saddens me to say it, it seems that as a nation we have fallen out of love with athletics.

We're 18 months away from hosting the Olympics and yet there is so little buzz about it. Visiting South Africa two or three years before the 2010 World Cup everyone knew it was coming, there were posters everywhere and you could feel the excitement. All we have here is a media row about who gets the rights to a stadium that is far from iconic in design, and was ludicrously expensive to build.

If the Olympic Stadium does go to Tottenham, it won't be the first athletics stadium to go to a football club. Eastlands was originally designed for Manchester's failed Olympic bid, it then hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2002 before being taken over by Manchester City. Perhaps that should have issued a warning to the athletics governing body: if there was an athletics crowd to fill Eastlands then it would still host athletics. As harsh as it sounds, British athletics needs to accept that the sport just isn't that big in this country.

When it comes to choosing between the two bids, I don't agree with Tottenham's assertion that an athletics track ruins the view of the pitch. No one complained about the dog track at the old Wembley, and as for being a long way from the action, I would challenge anyone to complain about watching Barcelona v Real Madrid up in the gods at the Camp Nou. The bigger concern is whether West Ham will regularly be able to fill a stadium that size, and that should be a big factor in the decision. A half-empty stadium is uninspiring – for footballers and athletes. You want a stadium to be full, and noisy. That's where the sense of occasion comes from. Surely for most British athletes a revamped and sold-out Crystal Palace would beat performing in front of 25,000 rattling around in an Olympic stadium with room for 60,000?

Rather than worry about stadiums, the athletics governing body should start worrying about participation. With the Schools Sport Partnership cuts going ahead – reports say 84% of services will have their funding withdrawn – where are we going to find our next generation of athletes? It's all very well having an Olympic stadium for athletes to compete in 20 years down the line, but if we're not producing more Daley Thompsons or Jessica Ennises then what is the point? That is a far more important, and pressing, legacy issue than what happens to an overpriced and rather unattractive pile of bricks and mortar.

Athletics: Paralympians in a class of their own

Get ready to be inspired by some incredible athletes as New Zealand hosts the international paralympic athletics world championships for the first time this week.

It is the biggest championships in history, and the first time the world's second biggest sports event for athletes with a disability has been held outside Europe.

More than 1000 athletes from more than 70 countries will compete in Christchurch in one of the last big international events before the 2012 London Paralympic Games.

Name athletes include South African sprint specialist Oscar Pistorius, known as "the Blade Runner", Swiss "Silver Bullet" Marcel Hug, David Wier, the Brit who won this year's New York marathon and American Paralympic gold medallists Jessica Galli and April Holmes.

Holmes, who has set up her own foundation to help people with disabilities fulfil their potential, hopes holding the championships outside Europe will spread the Paralympic movement.

"It's always important for us to take events like this around the regions and the countries who have not had the opportunity to host such a large sporting event," she said.

"We need to get out in the community and demonstrate our sport to people that are supporters and people who know absolutely nothing about the sport."

Holmes was injured in a train accident in 2001 and had her lower left leg amputated below the knee.

During her time in hospital she learned about Paralympic sport and set her goals.

"The surgeon who did the emergency surgery, probably a week after my accident, told me about the Paralympics.

"That's when I started thinking about it."

Holmes was a keen 400m runner as a junior but gave up athletics after graduating from university.

"Then we went to Athens [2004] and I broke the world record in the 100m and 200m."

She says she enjoys being able to go to different countries and compete "so people can see what people with disabilities can do and erase the mindset of what some people think people with disabilities can do".

Fiona Pickering, CEO of Paralympics NZ, chairwoman of the local organising committee and secretary-general of Oceania Paralympic Committee, agrees.

"To see any elite athlete performance is exciting," said Pickering

"But the adversity that these athletes have overcome to achieve on the world stage is the most inspirational and it makes many others believe that they can achieve."

Pickering said hosting the IPC Athletics World Championships was a huge honour for New Zealand.

"Walking around Christchurch there is a real buzz about the city.

"We expect the world champs will raise the profile of Paralympic sport in New Zealand and be a springboard for more participation of disabled people in sport in New Zealand.

"It will also be an opportunity to demonstrate to everyone just how capable these elite athletes are."

When it comes to acclimatising, Holmes and Team USA could have an advantage after visiting Christchurch in March last year.

Holmes travelled there with her teammates to get a feel for the city, the stadium and its people during the New Zealand national championships.

She will defend the 100m and 200m T44 world titles she won four years ago, and believes the visit could give them an edge.

"A little run-through before the competition starts is always good," said the 37-year-old American.

"We scoped out the different restaurants and things that some of the USA athletes can do in their downtime when they get there."

The timing of the World Championship is important in the countdown to the London Paralympics in 2012.

Paralympic Great and IPC Paralympian ambassador Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson knows there is plenty at stake.

"I think there is a lot of pressure on the guys because they all know that how they do and where they finish affects the team places for 2012," said Grey-Thompson who has won 16 Paralympic medals.

Grey-Thompson, in Christchurch as a BBC TV presenter and coach of 15-year-old British Paralympic hopeful Jade Jones, believes the timing of the games adds intrigue.

"A lot of the guys, even those from the Southern Hemisphere, are used to competing in a Northern European calendar.

"It's not only having to address their winter training league towards the worlds, but thinking really carefully about what they do for the next 18 months going into London.

"Thanks to the timing there might be some athletes we weren't expecting that might just get it right.

"I think we are going to see some really interesting races."

NZ athletes

Matthew Lack (19)
Classification T54
Events: 400m, 800m, 1500m

Kate Horan (35)
Classification T44
Events: 100m, 200m

Joe Flavell (33)
Classification F42
Event: Shot Put

Jess Hamill (20)
Classification F34
Events: Shot put, javelin

Tim Prendergast (31)
Events: 800m, 1500m

Sunil Fernandez-Ritchie (17)
Classification T20Event: 1500m

Rory McSweeney (25)
Classification F44
Event: Javelin

Holly Robinson (16)
Classification F46
Events: Shot put, javelin