This last week has been a torrid one for the little-known body running the competition to take on the £496m Olympic stadium after next year’s games.
Ever since Tottenham Hotspur unveiled its plans last week to take on the stadium – which involve not just the relocation of a historic football team from its traditional north London home, but also the virtual demolition of a £496m public building after four week’s use – it has been in the middle of a media storm.
Public figures have been lining up – quite understandably – to disparage Tottenham’s bid in favour of the local club, West Ham, who have the backing of the local council, Newham. Tottenham’s plan will also see the promise in London’s Olympic Bid of a permanent athletic legacy from the stadium consigned to the history books – football fans, the club says, do not want to look across a running track to watch the goals going in.
The big guns are out. When someone of Lord Sebastien Coe’s stature says Tottenham’s plans will “trash” the UK’s reputation, you know there’s a battle going on.
So the body charged with making the decision, the Olympic Park Legacy Company, has delayed the choice, presumably in a (probably vain) bid to hope the fuss dies down. Led by former English Partnerships chair Margaret Ford, the body has watched with growing anxiety and irritation over the past few days as the supposedly private bidding process has been increasingly playing out in public.
Whatever happens, someone in the construction industry is in for a big payday, as both bids will see major work done to the stadium. But Tottenham’s bid, backed by the operator of the Millennium Dome (OK, the O2 centre, before the brand police get me), AEG, will see by far the most radical action.
Reading the tea leaves, it looks like the OPLC could be left with a very tricky Hobson’s choice. West Ham’s bid, despite being backed by concert promoter Live Nation, relies on a £40m loan from the local council, incredible at a time of such swingeing local government cuts. With the Hammers languishing at the bottom of the table, there must be further fears about the club’s continued access to the goldmine of premier league TV rights. All this must cast doubts over it financial credibility.
And then there is the matter of keeping the running track – no small issue. West Ham says the track won’t be a problem in terms of generating atmosphere at the ground, but much experience suggests otherwise. Remember that RCD Espanyol, Barcelona’s second club, have just left the Olympic stadium in the city after years of complaining about a lack of atmosphere. The latest joke is that West Ham’s bid come with money set aside for binoculars for the fans to see the game.
The arguments against Tottenham’s bid are plentiful and obvious, but the backing of AEG suggests a financial credibility missing from West Ham’s.
In truth, it will probably come down to the hard money; which bid actually stands the greatest likelihood of being turned into reality. But if that means going for Spurs, the OPLC will have a great struggle explaining why it has ignored local opinion, ignored the UK’s own promises to international athletics, and been seen to rubber-stamp the gross waste of £500m of public.
But if the OPLC has to take the flak for this, it will be unfair.
The truth is, it should never have been put in this position.
It is picking up the bill for decisions made by the Olympic Delivery Authority years ago, decisions made despite its professed mantra of legacy, legacy, legacy. There is no reason the stadium could not have been built, at a cost sources suggest was only £50m greater, in a way that allowed it to be adapted to football use after the games.
The Commonwealth Games stadium in Manchester provides a model. That stadium, used by Manchester City, was converted after the Games by adding an extra tier of seating where the running track had been, lowering the pitch. Yes, a similar move at the Olympic stadium would have meant no immediate athletic legacy, but it would have meant a real use for the ground could have been found, without demolishing £500m of public investment in the most disgraceful and flamboyantly wasteful way.
The actual text of the UK bid outline “plans” for the Olympic Stadium to be “converted to a 25,000 seat multipurpose venue with athletics at its core.” But only the most perverse would insist that this has to be the way forward if no genuine viable use can be found. It is also plausible that an athletics legacy could be properly provided, as (albeit grudgingly) suggested by Spurs, in another form.
It was always clear to most outside of the UK’s athletics institutions, that football was the most likely tenant to provide a long-term viable use for the stadium, and this should have been realised at the time. An unrealistic, but understandable desire from Coe and his supporters to change the basic sporting preferences of the country, to somehow make us all more interested in athletics, could leave us with exactly what we were promised we’d avoid – a very costly white elephant.