Jim Cowan: Is the Olympic Stadium debate about legacy or is it a smokescreen?

Tuesday, 01 February 2011
Jim Cowan(6)It was supposed to be a quiet Sunday lunchtime pint however the locals, knowing I used to be an athlete, were keen to get my take on the big Tottenham v West Ham match. No, not a football match; the Olympic Stadium and the whole so-called legacy.

They were surprised by my view.

So called legacy? Are you serious? Isn't this a serious debate about a legacy for athletics in the UK?

But is it? In what way exactly does West Ham's proposed saving the track at the Olympic Stadium provide a legacy for athletics that Tottenham's proposed redevelopment of Crystal Palace does not?

Let's face it, after the embarrassing withdrawal from the hosting of the 2005 World Athletics Championships, it is unlikely that event will be visiting London soon. So, after 2012 what use will a 60,000 seat stadium be to athletics? Very little. The annual London Grand Prix might sell that many tickets but that is unlikely and so the harsh truth is that in maintaining the track at Stratford we would be creating a white elephant legacy of the kind Coe, Jowell & Co said we would not do, of the kind they pointed to in Sydney and Barcelona and Athens.

Double Olympian and leading coach John Bicourt is another former athlete who agrees. He has reminded us all that actually, post-Games, the original plan was to reduce the Olympic Stadium capacity to 25,000 to create a dedicated venue for athletics. As Mr Bicourt states; this was a bid promise.

But still, what of legacy?

The whole stadium/legacy debate is little more than a smokescreen to deflect our gazes from the lack of the legacy that was promised as part of the London 2012 bid; that of more people doing sport. Watching an athletics meeting in front of 60,000 empty seats is hardly likely to inspire future generations to take up what is fast becoming a minority sport.

I have written fairly frequently in these pages of the lack of strategy for the development of sport in this country. I have also pointed out on numerous occasions that throwing initiatives at the problem will not create any sustainable legacy for sport. I won't repeat myself, those articles are still available on this blog for anyone interested however I will point out that we will not guarantee the legacy of increased sporting participation via the sort of "cross your fingers and hope" planning seen by both current and previous Governments.

Olympic_Stadium_from_air_with_roof

Professor Mike Weed in his excellent blog wrote: "Today BBC London published a poll that found 63 per cent of Londoners believe 'It would damage the legacy if the stadium cannot hold athletics after 2012'. Lord Coe has said that London 2012 is 'morally obligated' to preserve an athletics legacy. But, in the haystack of words that have been written on the stadium legacy options, there are very few needles on the nature of the athletics legacy that the stadium is expected to deliver, and not even a pin on what EVIDENCE exists for such legacies.

"In short, while the quantity of comment has been extensive, the quality of debate has been poor. No-one on either side has detailed WHAT the athletics legacy is intended to be (more participants? more elite athletes? more elite events? all of these?), HOW retaining a track at the stadium will develop such legacies, WHO is intended to benefit and, most importantly, what EVIDENCE exists to suggest that the WHAT, HOW and WHO is viable? Perhaps the postponement of the stadium decision will give advocates on all sides the time to consider their moral obligation to improve the quality of the debate!"

Ill defined then, but smokescreen? Oh yes. For while Sport England are telling us how successful the funding of athletics - fast becoming a minority sport? - has been in driving up participation in that sport, research by others tells an entirely different story.

For starters, Sport England's statistics include everyone who jogs once a week. Yes, seriously, if you jog once a week you are part of the Government's "evidence" that athletics is growing nicely, that the legacy is falling into place.

So concerned are they that the truth is being misrepresented, the Association of British Athletics Clubs (ABAC) commissioned their own research into current levels of participation in track and field athletics. In other words, they asked how many people take part in what the general public understand to be athletics.

The answers, published on the ABAC website as a series of "fact files" will astound those who think the publicly funded pursuit of legacy is thriving.

Sport England tell us that up to 165,000 young people between the ages of 11 and 15 take part in athletics "regularly". Sport England define "regularly" as once per month. ABAC's research reveals that even in the best case scenario and even calling once a month 'regular' participation, the absolute maximum number of 11 to 15 year olds taking part in athletics is 51,000, only 31 per cent of the Sport England figure.

As if that isn't bad enough, the real figures for senior athletics participants are even further apart. Sport England tell us that 1.876 million adults "regularly"take part in athletics, not forgetting they include jogging. ABAC's research was limited to senior athletes between 20 and 34 years old and told us that fewer than 2,000 regularly take part in track and field athletes in that age group!

I can't speak for others but my own feeling is that the athletics legacy being chased by successive Governments will be in no need of a track at ANY venue, let alone one with 25,000 or 60,000 seats. Track and field athletics will be a thing of the past and joggers will be the new athletes. Perhaps the IOC will introduce jogging to the timetable in time for 2012?

I used the word smokescreen and that is exactly what it is. If legacy is to mean anything it must include participation in SPORT, not a redefinition of what sport is to fit the available figures. As I said to the locals at the pub, whether Tottenham or West Ham win their battle is probably irrelevant to athletics as there will be insufficient participants remaining to require very much of any stadium!

Jim Cowan is a former athlete, coach, event organiser and sports development specialist who is the founder of Cowan Global, a company specialising in consultancy, events and education and training. For more details click here
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