When Sepp Blatter revealed that Russia had won the race to stage the 2018 World Cup, my first reaction was that the likes of Seb Coe had played a crucial role in ensuring this country would never again be trusted to stage a major international sporting event again. The promises of London 2012 and the much lauded Athletics legacy had been ripped up in favour of providing a Premier League football club with a stadium on the cheap. It was a shameful and embarrassing indictment of this country’s ability to ever successfully execute all of the lofty assurances.
In many ways it was a scandal that London should even have been awarded the Olympics of 2012 in the first place. The humiliation of Pickets Lock 2005 and the IAAF Athletics World Championships which were awarded to London were still fresh in the minds. The farce that unravelled as the Championships were then forfeited after it was determined that the cost of the project couldn’t be justified. This should have ensured that it would be a quarter of a century or more before this country would be considered to stage a crazy golf championship, let alone the largest sporting event in the world.
Somehow the IAAF president Lamine Diack was convinced to vote in favour of London as opposed to the rival Paris bid. This was despite the fact that Diack himself is of Senegalese origin, therefore closer to the Francophone interests who could have expected him to support the Parisian package. Diack has since condemned the proposals to renege the promises of 2005 with proposals of allowing a football club to takeover the Olympic stadium after 2012. He says that Britain’s global reputation will be finished if Tottenham are allowed to demolish the athletics track and create a football only stadium.
Putting my Arsenal bias aside, which can be incredibly difficult at the best of times, I have a tendency to agree with him. Their half baked proposals to redevelop Crystal Palace National Sports Centre are a poor attempt to appease those concerned by the possibility of the promises of 2005 being broken in 2012. So far the only credible voice from the world of athletics has come in the shape of Darren Campbell who argued that Tottenham’s bid should be considered. The crucial difference between Stratford and Crystal Palace, as any visitor to London will tell you, is that the latter lacks the transport infrastructure of the East London terminus.
I also think that after the ill feeling of the old Wimbledon FC who became Milton Keynes Dons, there is little appetite in football to back a club to move so far away from their natural catchment area. Admittedly moving to a different borough in London is not quite the same as moving to a different city, there is still a feeling in the game that the lessons of MK Dons in 2002 must never be allowed to happen again.
West Ham appears to be the lesser of two evils, they have promised to retain the athletics track in a stadium revamp which would see the capacity reduced from 80,000 to just over 60,000. On the face of it a perfect marriage in which a club in the same borough as Stratford gets to inherit the stadium while still ensuring the assurances of an athletics legacy in East London were met, and not torpedoed to a poorly located (and connected!) suburb of South East London. But if recent opinion polls have supported West Ham’s bid for the Olympic Stadium, they may find they are about to encounter an unlikely barrier to their aspirations from a forgotten local neighbour.
Barry Hearn, Chairman of Leyton Orient, is concerned that West Ham taking up residency 2 miles away from their own stadium will entice supporters from the O’s to the Olympic stadium with cheap tickets and other incentive based membership schemes. He would prefer Tottenham to win the bid, as they have a longer season ticket waiting list and are less likely to dramatically reduce their ticket prices in order to fill the stadium. A realist however, he senses that recent momentum is behind the West Ham proposal. Hearn is now considering the possibility of pursuing West Ham’s move with legal action, which with appeals could delay any move by as much as five years.
Its difficult not to feel sorry for Orient, they are London’s second oldest football club and were the original interested party in the stadium back in 2008, but ruled it out when the idea of 25,000 seater stadium was scrapped. It would be ridiculous to even consider the idea of Leyton Orient playing in a 60,000 stadium, one only has to look to Scotland where Queen’s Park play their domestic football crowds in the National stadium at Hampden Park, a ground with a capacity of 52,000 while Queen’s Park average attendances of 750!
If West Ham did secure the Olympic stadium after 2012, there is a very real possibility that Leyton Orient would be squeezed out of existence. On the other hand if Tottenham are allowed to fulfil their proposal, the East End of London will not have a dedicated athletics facility after 2012. There are other important questions which need to be asked of the West Ham proposal, such as considering what would happen in the event that the club were to be relegated and were unable to fill the stadium. A quick glance at the Premiership league table shows that this is a very realistic outcome in 2011 and would leave the taxpayer subsidising the stadium long after the Olympics stopped generating any revenue.
In an ideal world the promise of 2005 of an athletics only stadium would be fulfilled. The reality of using a stadium once a year and staging a major international competition every 15 years would be impossible to justify, particularly in an existing financial climate of austerity and cuts. Leyton Orient is the romantics’ choice, Tottenham the treasury’s choice. This leaves West Ham as the option which neither satisfies the treasury or the romantics, but in retaining the athletics track, does at least induce the support of powerful voices from the world of athletics, including Lord Coe himself. West Ham’s bid does not make financial sense, nor does it fill me with confidence that football fans will enjoy visiting a stadium where fans behind the goal are 45 metres from the action. However Diack has pointed out, quite rightly, that until 2000 Wembley was one of the most celebrated stadiums in the world and had a track around the pitch which accommodated not only Greyhound racing (until 1998), but also motor racing events as well.
West Ham must be awarded the Olympic stadium in order to preserve Britain’s reputation on the global stage as a nation who can be held to their word. For all the hand wringing of England’s failed 2018 football World Cup bid, there can be no possibility of Britain ever being taken seriously for any future major international events if the promises of 2005 are broken post 2012. East London must have an athletics legacy, not in Crystal Palace but in Stratford.