First person Where to put a British Olympic stadium? Tony Banks says Wembley is the only choice. But don't rule out Picketts Lock.
Britain is still celebrating its greatest Olympic Games for 80 years. But when will British fans be able to cheer British athletes here in Britain? It is 52 years since we staged the Olympic Games in this country. During that period, Australia and America have each staged them twice.

Of course, politics has a major influence on the choice of country to host the Games. But a suitable stadium is needed as well. The International Olympic Committee has what at first seems to be a curious criterion for such a stadium. Although a 50 000-seater is regarded as adequate for the actual athletics events, the IOC demands a stadium with 80 000 seats simply to accommodate the audience expected at the opening and closing ceremonies, even though these have far more to do with show business than with athletic endeavour.

All these considerations are, at present, a moot point. Britain simply does not possess a modern stadium that the IOC would regard as suitable. Although there are now definite plans to build a new national athletics stadium at Enfield, north London, for the World Athletics Championships in 2005, some observers are saying that rising costs and other problems will scupper them.

Even if the stadium does go up, there are doubts that the IOC would find it acceptable as an Olympic venue.

I am not one of those who take pleasure in crabbing the plans of our athletic authorities or government. But it has to be admitted that the saga of the location, scale and specifications of a international athletics venue for Britain has become increasingly dispiriting. Talk about the Flying Dutchman; that legend has nothing on the comedy-drama of the Wandering Athletics Stadium.

At first it was thought that the rebuilt Wembley stadium would fit the requirements, not simply for the Olympic Games, but for the World Outdoor Athletics Championships. Even though Britain ended up the only credible bidder for that event, we had to prove that we had the stadium to house it. Wembley, the government decided, would not do. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport took the view that an international football stadium could not be tidily and relatively inexpensively converted into an athletics stadium. So, out went Wembley.

The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee of the House of Commons arrived at a contrary opinion. After a special inquiry that took evidence from experts in stadium design, and looked carefully into the technical and financial implications, it recommended that Wembley should, indeed, be a venue both for football and athletics. It reported that conversion from one use to another was not only possible but viable. The DCMS rejected the select committee's report within a matter of hours.

The Flying Dutchman has nothing on the comedy-drama of the Wandering Athletics Stadium

So, the government and the sporting authorities began searching for a suitable site in the London area. Twickenham was considered. So was Hackney. Then, earlier this year, a decision was made. A previously unknown location was to become the Mecca for athletics enthusiasts in 2005 — Picketts Lock, in the Lee Valley Regional Park in Enfield. This 60 ha parcel of land in north London suddenly seemed to the government the only and obvious choice.

But is it? Tony Banks, the former sports minister, does not think so. There are those who will immediately dismiss his views, on the grounds that a disgruntled former minister has every incentive to attack the decisions of his successors. I do not agree.

Although I believe that we must all support Picketts Lock as an athletics venue if it does indeed get built, I have a lot of sympathy with the argument put forward by Banks that "the only venue suitable for an Olympic bid is Wembley". After all, I put my name to a select committee report that said exactly that. I also agree with Banks that, with major athletics events being so few and attracting relatively small crowds, there is a real danger that Picketts Lock would be empty much or even most of the time.

It is claimed that the 2005 event will be the greatest athletics gathering in Britain since 1948, although the promoters of the Manchester Commonwealth Games would certainly challenge such an assertion. But the Manchester example is instructive.

A major new athletics stadium is going up in the city's Eastlands area for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, yet there is no intention of retaining it permanently for that purpose. It has already been decided that it is to be converted into a football stadium that will then become the home of Manchester City Football Club.