Alan Hubbard: The fanfare of success or the trumpeting of a white elephant?

Monday, 12 November 2012
Alan HubbardWhen Lord Coe was duly anointed as the new chair of the British Olympic Association (BOA) last week, did we hear the trumpeting of a white elephant in the room?

Just a few hours before it had been revealed that the £486 million ($772 million/€608 million) Olympic Stadium will be mothballed at least until 2015 – and possibly later.

So, it will lay dormant for another three or four years while £200 million ($318 million/€250 million) – double the original estimate – is spent on converting it into a multisport venue with retractable seating over the immoveable running track, a feature now recognised as essential for a football tenant – most probably West Ham United.

There is even the possibility that, if the refurbishment is not completed on schedule the Stadium, reduced to 60,000 capacity, would not be ready to host the IAAF World Athletics Championships in 2017, or any other athletics event.

No wonder Coe said tersely: "As a vice-president of the IAAF I will be watching the situation closely."

sebastian coe 13-11-12Sebastian Coe admitted that he will be keeping a close eye on the progress of the London Olympic Stadium ahead of the 2017 IAAF World Athletics Championships

There is no doubt that this is a serious blow to Coe's promised legacy of 2012, the glorious drama of the iconic Olympics and Paralympics now threatening a farcical postscript.

Moreover, the question of who will pay for the upgrade remains unresolved, with West Ham, some £80 million ($127 million/€100 million) in debt, saying they would contribute only £10 million ($16 million/€13 million) on the premise that the landlord should provide facilities.

The present hiatus underlines the own goal scored seven years ago, when, despite knowing the Stadium's only viable future was with a national sport like football, the successful Games bid team rejected the idea of installing Stade de France-style retractable seating, which in that more clement economic climate could have been included for little more than the cost of West Ham's striker from Mali.

Was this because the bid team did not wish to imitate anything their French rivals had done? If so it was, as they say, l'incroyable faux pas.

The possibility of the taxpayer having to subsidise a Premier League club is causing some angst at Westminster where the Shadow Sports Minister Clive Efford told the insidethegames: "These delays can only mean more public money is spent on maintaining the Stadium. I would rather see this money go to community sport."

london olympic stadium work 13-11-12Labour were in Government when the original decision was made on the shape and size of the Olympic Stadium

If the opposition sports spokesman is a little coy of saying more it is surely understandable. For Labour were in Government when the original decision was made on the shape and size of the stadium.

Those influencing that decision included not only Tory peer Lord Coe but Labour Secretary of State Tessa Jowell and leftie former London Mayor Ken Livingstone.

The Games bid team clearly was anxious not to make the cost of the stadium seem exorbitant knowing that that the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, was sceptical about the whole project. Indeed, I am reliably informed that when then bid was won he held his head in his hands and groaned:"Oh my God, what have we let ourselves in for?"

Knowing that football and athletics are such uncomfortable bedfellows when a track surrounds the pitch, incorporating a roll-over seating plan from the start would now be seen as sensibly cost-effective in the light of the uncertainties enveloping the Stadium today.

A deal with a London football club would have been a no brainer in that situation.

The fact that the Stadium will be redundant for so long has disquieting echoes of the fate of several at previous Olympics, not least Beijing 2008 where they are building a shopping mall and hotel to attract major events that have been few and far between, with no sign of permanent usage by anyone.

beijing birds nestBeijing is building a shopping mall and a hotel to attract attention to it's Olympic Stadium

With all this rumbling on London's Olympic Park is already beginning to resemble something of a shell of its former glory, with the spectre of a doubtful future for the Olympic Stadium looming large as the centrepiece.

But in the manner of the late Clive Dunn (Cpl Jones in Dad's Army) Coe assures us: "Don't panic!"

He dismisses the prospect of white elephants and insists this is simply a period of transformation. "It will be a thriving park. It is important to make the right decisions and not force ourselves into time frame where those decisions don't become sustainable."

Coe's lap of honour following the conclusion of the Games is expected to conclude with him being named "Man of the Year". His appointment "by acclamation" to the BOA role surely will cement his ambition to become President of the IAAF in 2015 and ultimately even, the IOC.

The sporting world is his oyster. I have even heard it rumoured that he might succeed Sepp Blatter at FIFA.

But these have been an oddly disconcerting few days for the good lord.

Apart from the Stadium controversy his new book has been strangely, and unfairly, savaged by a prissy Guardian interviewer who declared she found him "a crashing bore".

Now I have known Coe for 40 years. He may be many things but boring?

Never. How could he possibly be with the sort of life he has led?

Perhaps she didn't ask him the right questions.

seb coe autobiographySebastian Coe may be many things but boring he is not

Actually, his biography "Running My Life" published by Hodder & Stoughton, is a rather good read, if a bit pricey at £25 ($40/€31).

Now he faces a grilling at the London Assembly alongside his trusty right hand man at London 2012, Paul (now Lord) Deighton, Mayor Boris Johnson and Denis Hone, chief executive of the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC).

It seems odd to have a post-mortem on a Games that was far from a fatality but the London Assembly inquisitors will do their utmost to find fault, of that we can be certain. We can we equally sure that Coe will handle them will his usual aplomb.

Much of it will be nit picking over tickets and security but I suspect the nitty-gritty will surround the Stadium and in particular how much it will cost in maintenance while it lays idle.

In a similar situation the taxpayer had to fork out £1 million ($1.6 million/€1.3 million) a month before the Millennium Dome was rescued by AEG, the American entertainment corporation to become the now hugely prospering O2.

Technically, Coe is not responsible now for what happens to the Stadium, it is in the hands of the Mayor and the Legacy bods.

But as the Government's advisor on the L-word, he must have a say in the matter.

Greenwich Leisure Limited will operate the Aquatics Centre for 10 years starting in 2013 along with the MultiUse ArenaGreenwich Leisure Limited will operate the Aquatics Centre for 10 years starting in 2013, along with the Multi-Use Arena

The futures of the Aquatics Centre and Velodrome are certainly secure and doubtless a suitable anchor tenant eventually will be found for the stadium.

But one wonders whether a trick is being missed here - just as it was by Coe and co seven years ago.

When the refurbishments to the permanent sports facilities are completed, could there be sufficient room in the rest of the Olympic Park to create a theme park – a London Disneyland maybe?

OK, so there was nothing Mickey Mouse about London 2012 but what an opportunity to demonstrate, as the O2 has done, that sport and the entertainment business can be a winning team.

Better that than an Olympic circus ring, complete with white elephant.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.
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