POSTED: November 3rd 2016

NEIL WILSON: The lesson of London 2012 for athletics

THE NEIL WILSON COLUMN / An exclusive, authoritative series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) An architectural commentator once wrote that when an Olympic flame is attached to any stadium design, somebody gets burnt. How true.

This week, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced an inquiry into the escalating costs of adapting the 2012 Olympic Stadium for the needs of its primary tenant, Premier League club West Ham United. It has so far ballooned from the original estimate of £154 million ($185m) to £323 million.

That raises the total cost of the Stadium from its original Bid Document projection of £280 million to £752 million. Exchange fluctuations and inflation make it difficult to compile a list of the most expensive stadia but the likelihood is that London now would be in the top five.

London's other stadium at Wembley is slightly ahead still and the MetLife in New Jersey is far ahead in first place at $1.6 billion. Incredibly Montreal's Olympic Stadium from 1976, adjusted for inflation, is also ahead at $1.4 billion and Tokyo's slimmed down design for 2020 is projected at $1.2 billion

The problem often is the changing minds of politicians. London's present Deputy Mayor blames the previous administration of Boris Johnson. "We inherited a mess," he said.

Boris Johnson, when he became Mayor after London had won its Olympic bid, blamed his predecessor Ken Livingstone. "A very bad call was made at the time," he said of the Stadium design.

To an extent that is the best summary of the reason the price has gone through the roof.  Sebastian Coe, as bid leader and subsequently OC chairman, was determined that athletics would have a post-Olympic legacy. He and Livingstone, with Government blessing, chose a design in which the top tier of the stadium would be removed post-Games to reduce it to 25,000 seats.

Then the Government changed its mind, wanting a multi-sport arena it could sell to a permanent tenant, a soccer or rugby football club, to cover maintenance costs. So a design was developed in which soccer would be pre-eminent 11 months of the year in an arena that would be adapted for athletics for one month.

 Why would anybody think it might work?  It had not worked in Munich where the Bayern Munich club gave up the 1972 Olympic Stadium and it did not work at the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin where Juventus walked out.  Now West Ham United fans hate their new home.

 From that decision in London to mix and match two unhappy bed-mates everything flowed, not least the rising costs.

The answer was staring Coe, Livingstone and the London bidders in the face - in Manchester, a true soccer city. The stadium for the 2002 Commonwealth Games showed the Olympic sport the door immediately after its Games and transformed the stadium into a single-use 55,000 seat arena for Manchester City FC.

Total cost of the original: £112 million. Cost of transformation: around £50 milliion. Result: a proper football stadium regularly full and much loved.

Athletics is not a year-round sport that can ensure the viability of vast stadia. It may be number one Olympic sport but it is in everybody's best interest if in future it does not make its home in Olympic arenas.

** NEIL WILSON reported his first Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. He has since covered another nine summer and nine winter Olympics for various newspapers, including The Independent and the Daily Mail with whom he has worked for the last 19 years as Athletics and Olympic correspondent. He was Britain's Sports Journalist of the Year in 1984 and is the author of seven books.

****The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sports Features Communications.

Keywords · Olympics · Neil Wilson · London 2012

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