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.

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