The final submissions, then, are complete and now comes the waiting game. The tug of war over the Olympic Stadium has become one of the more unseemly events of the football season so far, a desperate battle for a piece of land that very few people involved in football had a great deal of interest until it became clear that there was a chance of building a vast, new stadium there on the (relatively) cheap. With an open letter issued by a group of former British Olympians stating that removing the track from the Olympic Stadium after the 2012 games would mean that the stadium would, “effectively become an Olympic Stadium with NO Olympic connection or legacy”, the question of whether Premier League football should be muscling in on what was supposed to be a legacy for British athletics is one that has finally become something of an issue over the last few days, and this is a question that should be at the forefront of the minds of those making the final decision over this issue.
Tottenham Hotspur’s bid for the stadium seems to have little going for it other than that they will get a new stadium for £200m less than if they stay in N17 (which is questionable in itself) and the fact that they will be able to turn an operating profit from it. How anybody other that Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and their partners, AEG, would profit from it is not a question that has been answered with any degree of satisfaction, and their plans to rebuild the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace as a permanent home for British athletics can only be regarded as a sop to tick a box on a form, even before Crystal Palace Football Club publicly announced that they are interested in redeveloping the site as a new ground for themselves. Considering their location and the fact that the site was their first home in 1905, it is difficult to argue that they don’t have more of a claim on this particular site than Spurs do.
The mood of the Tottenham support seems to be antagonised. We mentioned the We Are N17 protest group which started after the extent of the club’s seriousness about trying to bag the site of the Olympic Stadium became apparent. This tetchiness has grown to the extent that the possibility of forming a breakaway club should the club move there. Recent polls on forums (which, it should be said by way of mitigation, are self-selecting and not necessarily completely representative of the views of the entire support) seem to indicate that an overwhelming percentage of their support is against the move, and it must surely be a concern that the club’s much-vaunted 30,000 waiting list for season tickets (which has, for reasons that we may examine at a later date, is also not as clear cut as some believe it to be) could begin to evaporate over the next few seasons if a move to Stratford is rubber-stamped. There is certainly precedent for unpopular owners leading to season ticket waiting lists vanishing – the once-famous Manchester United season ticket waiting list – which the club once claimed was 60,000 names long, had disappeared completely by last summer.
Spurs don’t even have the support of the council to whose area they want to move. Newham Council support the West Ham United bid for the Olympic Stadium, and they are not the only heavyweights behind the club. UK Athletics have described Spurs’ plan to demolish the stadium and rebuild it as unacceptable and have put their support behind West Ham’s bid, which would maintain the athletics track around the pitch and develop the site as a multi-purpose community stadium in conjunction with the local council. The UK Athletics chairman, Ed Warner, seems to feel that part of the Olympic legacy that was promised as a large part of the success of the bid for the 2012 games includes a world-class venue for British athletics. Indeed, his comments on the subject give off an air of little more than contempt for the Spurs/AEG bid:
The greatest city in the world deserves a facility that is capable of hosting world championships and major athletics events. That is really the legacy we need from the Games for our sport. We’ve had sporadic conversations with AEG over the course of the year and one brief conversation with Spurs. Anything they might propose for an athletics legacy has to be a compromise to the stadium continuing to operate at a world-class level. To my mind that is completely unacceptable.
Question marks have been raised over West Ham’s ability fund the project, but these may have been allayed somewhat by the news that Newham Council have promised a loan of £40m should they win with their bid and, while a BBC London investigation raised questions over the circumstances under which the loan came to be agreed, this can only be taken as something that will strengthen the West Ham bid. The club’s supporters seem split over whether the move would be a good thing for them – they certainly don’t seem to be 100% behind the club’s owners, but any opposition is nothing like it is amongst Spurs supporters. Still, though, discussion on the subject of the future of the Olympic Stadium has largely ignored the potentially ruinous that it could have upon the football club that is nearest to it – Leyton Orient – and one of the biggest ironies of this entire bum rush is that the FA could yet veto either Spurs or West Ham using the Olympic Stadium should Orient complain and they conclude that it could be seriously damaging to their future. Whether Barry Hearn, who has publicly stated that he would like to move Orient out into Essex before, would complain too much, however, is a different matter.
What is most disappointing about this discussion is that the spirit under which the London Olympics were awarded in the first place is being swept under the carpet, with arguments about “economic viability” drowning out all other considerations. The West Ham proposal has its faults, but it at least keeps the spirit of the original promises made alive to an extent and, providing the council keeps any of the more possessive urges that the club may start to hold towards its new home in check, may actually offer a long-term benefit to the people of Stratford on the whole. Quite how the Olympic legacy would be best tended by shunting British athletics back to a newly-renovated Crystal Palace (even without taking into account the fact that Crystal Palace FC have thrown a spanner into those particular works) while the Olympic Stadium itself is demolished, rebuilt and used as a platform for a club with no roots in the area to play Premier League football and host stadium concerts in the summer, on the other hand, remains a mystery. The London Olympics should leave a legacy, and that legacy shouldn’t have to include football to be worthwhile.
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