Monday, 14 February 2011

Athletics and football - the arranged marriage from hell?

So, there we have it; West Ham get the Olympic Stadium and everybody’s happy apart from Tottenham who are considering legal action. Oh, and Leyton Orient who now have a Premier League team pitching up on their doorstep proposing to give away cheap tickets in a bid to fill the new venue.

Say what you like, but the whole affair demonstrates Britain's innovative and forward-thinking approach to stadium design. Actually, that last part's not true. Britain has had a chaotic, nay shambolic relationship with its sporting stadia over the last 130 years or so, best illustrated by the fact that between 1923, when the old Wembley hosted its first game, and 1991, when the Don Valley stadium opened in Sheffield, not one single new stadium was built in Britain.

Wembley - a famous old shithole

Of course, it was an horrific event in that same city two years earlier that was the catalyst for a huge stadium re-building and modernisation project across the country over the last 20 years.  If, like me, you watched football in the late Eighties you’ll now that back then stadia weren’t entertainment venues but squalid, Dickensian places where near-miss incidents on the scale of Hillsborough occurred many times over.

Indeed it would be wrong to think that the Hillsborough tragedy was a one-off event, tragically it was merely the last in a long line of fatal or near-fatal incidents at British stadia, of which the overwhelming majority were caused by crushing. Most infamously, in 1946 32 people died when crush barriers collapsed during a game at Bolton’s Burnden Park and in 1971 66 people died at Ibrox following a crush after a goal in an Old Firm game.

In 1981 at the FA cup semi-final between Spurs and Wolves at Hillsborough, late arrivals and a surge after a goal caused injuries to 38 fans.  Although no one died, this incident is particularly chilling – the same cause in the same part of the same stadia would lead to 96 deaths just eight years later. It seems no lessons were learned if, indeed, any were acknowledged at all.

In total over 300 people have died and 4,000 been injured at incidents at Britain’s football grounds and, apart from the Valley Parade fire, all have been terrace-related crushes. The overwhelming cause was, until the early Nineties, the complete abdication of responsibility by the game's administrators towards their customers. The only widespread 'modernisation' at football grounds in that time - the instillation of fencing, itself a key cause of the deaths at Hillsborough - was instead a measure designed to 'contain' the 'problem' of football fans. 

Of course, having waited the best part of 70 years for a new stadium, now we have so many we don’t know what to do with them as a new set of administrators cack-handedly muddle their way through a different set of problems.

Tottenham’s attitude to the Olympic Stadium has seemed astonishingly arrogant - they weren't interested in the stadium, just the land, as they proposed to knock it down (effectively burning £500m of public money after just 17 days of use) and starting again from scratch. Their answer to the annoying issue of a legacy for athletics was to fund the building of a new stadium over in Crystal Palace, which in turn might have scuppered Crystal Palace FC’s hope for a new ground.

This seems odd as there are many stadia around the world which accommodate both sports.  Munich’s Olympiastadion has a running track round it and yet managed to host both the 1974 World Cup final and the 1988 European Championship final, furthermore the track didn’t seem to diminish England fans’ enjoyment of their 5-1 win over Germany at the ground in 2001.  Likewise Rome’s Stadio Olimpico has hosted several international football finals despite – Shock! Horror! – also having a running track.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground (capacity 100,000) hosts cricket, football, Australian football and both codes of Rugby and across the world innovative solutions have allowed for multi-sports stadia use. The Sapporo Dome in Japan hosts both football - on a retractable grass pitch - and baseball - on an artificial surface. The grass pitch is removed while baseball is being played and the stands reconfigure to change the shape of the ground.

And get this - the Rod Laver Arena, also in Melbourne and where the Australian Open final is held, has also hosted swimming and motor cross and has a removable stand to enable it to host concerts. Suggest that at a Wimbledon committee meeting and you're guaranteed to have a couple of heart-attack victims on your hands.

This insularity might be unique to Britain but it’s not unique to football.  Twickenham is an 82,000 capacity stadium – the fourth biggest in Europe – that is used exclusively for rugby.  In 2000 the RFU allowed a Rugby League game to be played there for the first time in 73 years but while Bon Jovi and Iron Maiden have had the pleasure of gracing its turf, not one football match has been taken place at the stadium.

Wouldn't it have been astonishingly forward-thinking if football and rugby had set aside their long-held, and frankly pathetic, differences to allow Twickenham to become the home for both English football and rugby? We could have pulled-down the rotting corpse of the old Wembley, saved ourselves £700m in the process and perhaps built the FA's long-planned National Football Centre instead.

Instead, while football happily co-exists with other sports in major stadiums around the world, we British, with our lack of vision and long-term planning, stand as a lone beacon against such foreign nonsense.

The seeds for the current problems were sown when Wembley was rebuilt (and let's not forget that went a year over schedule and £300m over-budget). It was supposed to be a national stadium able to accommodate football and athletics and form the basis of both Olympic and World Cup bids. However, that nice Mr Ken Bates - the man initially in charge - kicked that idea into touch making Wembley a football-only venue - no retractable seats in his grand scheme.

This left the 2005 World Athletics Championship without a venue until Picketts Lock was chosen as the site for a new, dedicated athletics stadium, but just two years later that was deemed too expensive and, to much embarrassment, Britain had to pull out as hosts of the event. And, of course, it meant that when London did win the right to host the 2012 Olympics a whole new stadium had to be built with . . . you guessed it, an athletics track.

Pickets cock up

The Wembley fiasco - and the way athletics was bullied out of the equation - meant the Olympic board almost went out of their way to devise a plan that meant the stadium couldn't be occupied by a football club after the Games, the initial plan being to maintain the athletics track and drop capacity to 25,000. The alternative, argued for by then-Sports Minister Richard Caborne, was for the athletics track to be covered by retractable seats allowing for dual post-Games use.

However, when it became clear that in reality a football club needed to be involved post-2012 to make the stadium economically viable, West Ham and Spurs became involved but by then there was no compromise option (which retractable seats would have allowed).  Either the track stayed or it went (hence Spurs' desire to rebuild from scratch and move the track to a dedicated arena in Crystal Palace) and so there's a sense we're left with a mish-mash plan that doesn't really suit anyone's needs.

Frankly all this makes us look a little bit silly, but is only to be expected in a country where sub-committees and vested interests rule supreme. If Ken Bates hadn't dumped athletics from Wembley then perhaps the Olympic board would have been more accommodating to football. Perhaps they could have used technology to create an innovative dual-purpose stadium and a genuine local legacy by putting Leyton Orient at the heart of their plans.

But no, petty politics has allowed the Premier League to win out again.

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