Olympic Legacy Folly

While the longer-term future of London’s Olympic Stadium remains a matter of speculation, it’s becoming more obvious that the Games organisers’ repeated pledge to maintain it as an athletics venue was a bad call.

2012 Olympics chairman Sebastian Coe – a two-time Olympic gold medal winner – has stressed the stadium should be primarily used for track and field meetings. But at the beginning of the month the strategy took another knock when it became clear London may not even be in a position to bid for the 2015 World Athletics Championships.

The world championships would be the first flagship athletics meeting to be staged after the Olympic Stadium’s reopening, but London’s bid to stage the competition hangs on a cash-strapped government’s willingness to underwrite it.

The government is paying to stage the Olympics and potentially has the cost of staging the 2018 World Cup soccer finals coming down the pipeline.

The pre-planning that was intended to avoid the stadium turning into the same sort of “white elephant” as the Millennium Dome, prior to AEG taking over, may have the unintended effect of creating a folly.

The London Assembly, the part of the Greater London Authority that watches the city’s purse strings, has already reached this conclusion.

“Put simply, an elite 25,000-seat athletics stadium is not, and was never going to be, in the long-term interests of the East End or of the taxpayer,” said London Assembly’s culture, sport and tourism committee chairman Len Duvall. His organisation published a report saying only a major soccer or rugby club could keep the stadium from becoming “a so-called white elephant.”

Olympic Park Legacy Company chief exec Andrew Altman admitted the venue was attracting a lot of interest from potential bidders who would prefer it remained a stadium, rather than downsizing from 80,000 capacity to 24,000 to make it more suitable for athletics.

The two highest-profile bids come from Premier League soccer clubs Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United. Both Tottenham and West Ham would ideally like a ground that’s nearer to 60,000-capacity.

AEG president Tim Leiweke, whose company is bidding in cahoots with Tottenham, said the soccer club would prefer to tear up the running track.

“I think it’s a crime if you sacrifice having a perfect football stadium for convincing yourself you are going to do a track and field event every 10 years … that can’t stand on its own two feet,” he said.

AEG was earlier reportedly considering throwing its hat in with the West Ham bid, although it’s now believed to have backed the Spurs because the company thinks the north London club is the more likely to fill 60,000 seats on match days.

Tottenham also has planning permission to build a new stadium next to its current ground at White Hart Lane, which could appear to be its preferred option.

AEG apparently feels it’s unlikely Spurs will leave it at the altar by staying in north London. AEG’s London office has confirmed it hasn’t made a separate independent bid for the Olympic venue.

In the middle of September when AEG’s global rival Live Nation said it was backing West Ham’s bid to get the stadium, international chief ops officer Paul Latham had already put forward the same view on the sustainability of an athletics stadium.

“Athletics alone will not provide the upkeep, nor will concerts, but if you can bolt on 25-30 soccer matches a year to those other events there is a more credible business plan,” he told Pollstar.

As with the Manchester stadium used for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, the legacy company looking after the venue hoped to guarantee its sustainability by having a clear view of its longer-term future some months before the games were to take place.

In 2002 the plan worked because the City Of Manchester Stadium was always to be the future home of Manchester City soccer club, which regularly attracts a 45,000-crowd to home matches.