Sunday, January 23, 2011

Olympic stadium a fight for soccer's soul...?

Football and the Olympics does matter after all.

By the end of this week either Tottenham Hotspur or West Ham United will be in pole position to take over London's Olympic Stadium once the flame goes out on the 12th of August 2012. The battle for Stratford has turned into a fire-fight between two capital clubs with
all manner of voices wading in, from politicians to Pelé.Olympic stadium a fight for soccer's soul?
But whichever club wins the right to move house next year, the decision will also record for posterity just what is driving the soul of British sport at this moment. It is price versus value and by the end we will see just how much money can buy.

Olympic stadia are beautiful, but what is to be done with them once the party is over? Athletics just does not pay, however popular it will appear for a month at the games. Next year, the track events will as ever be the blue riband of the games, sports am
ateur in tradition if not in practice anymore. Although Baron de Coubertin's Corinthian ideals may now be a quaint memory, the fact Britain does not possess a single venue able to host a major track championship is painful proof of just how far athletics lags behind the professional team sports in money-making.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the UK team finished fourth in the medals table, beaten only by superpowers China, Russia and the United States, yet a closer inspection reveals only four of Britain's 47 medals were won inside the main arena. The velodrome by contrast yielded sixteen.
The 2012 stadium cost the British taxpayer half a billion pounds and the odd athletics meet alone will not pay for its future upkeep. Enter football, riding to the rescue.
Tottenham are thriving on this financial uncertainty, and are wielding the buying power of their fans - 36,000 season-ticket holders and 40,000 on a waiting list, as their battering ram on the doors of the Olympic Park Legacy Company, the body who will pick the winner. Sold out Spurs matches and the rest of the site under the aegis of AEG, who transformed the Millennium Dome from a ridiculed white elephant into the hugely successful O2 Arena, can surely reduce the tax bill faster than West Ham can and reassure the anxious politicians in this age of austerity.

And if there were any doubt about which tenant would be the more lucrative, Spurs' Champions League adventure this season stands in sharp contrast to the Hammers' relegation fight. Both clubs are ogling a new stadium for free and the proceeds from auctioning off their own real estate, although the Hammers need the money more.

West Ham are playing what they know are less tangible but more respectable cards - those of trust, altruism and tribalism: They are hoping the promise of an athletics legacy for the nation at the time of bidding is an oath of honour, that the OPLC will feel that track and field, however unprofitable, deserves at least one big arena when football already has so many, and the fact that the locality is far more claret and blue than white and navy territory.
A club crossing town after a century in Haringey does go against the natural order of the sport, whose roots lie in brawls between medieval parishes, but the game has come a long way since those Shrovetide tussles. In only the last ten years the Premier League has metamorphosed into an international division based in England while London, an economic hot-spot conveniently located halfway between the financial hotspots of Asia and East Coast America, has also been transformed by a globalised influx which has left its old face a folktale.

Franchise moves are common in American sports where many areas of population lack professional sports teams but less so in England, where a wealthy investor need only pluck a struggling club and whisk it through the divisions towards the big time.

The Olympic environs are virgin territory anyway, as is much of East London's growth corridor and the monied business district of Canary Wharf, whose cityscape resembles North America, not England. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy sees relocation as part of a bigger picture for this part of the capital and doubtless salivates over the shining new transport links to Stratford while his club's fans struggle to reach White Hart Lane, a nice ground in an otherwise grotty urban neighbourhood.

And Spurs fans mostly do not come from Tottenham these days, any more than West Ham's hail from the Bangladeshi area around Upton Park, so talk of tribal land
rights can sound odd in the mobile London of 2011.
West Ham have the moral case if there is one, based on the promises London's bidding team used to convince the International Olympic Committee to pick them ahead of Paris in the first place. The IOC and world athletics' governing body have rushed to their aid in the final days of the campaign.

The IAAF chief Lamine Diack did not mince his words, speaking of London's "big li
e" were it to choose Spurs, adding for good measure,

"And after that it is a betrayal...You can consider yourself dead. You are finished."


Sebastian Coe, the public face of London 2012 was unambiguous: "We have a moral obligation."


Tottenham have brushed aside claims they are arrogantly ignoring Olympic promises by pledging instead to redevelop Crystal Palace athletics stadium to 25,000, the initial planned capacity of the Olympic stadium after the games. With the hours counting down until D-Day, Spurs wheeled out Pelé, Jimmy Greaves and their coach Harry Redknapp to stress how football and athletics do not mix happily in the same arena, a fact which is
hard to deny. But West Ham landed a counter-punch from an unlikely angle.

Out of the blue last week,
Crystal Palace F.C. announced they intend to develop the nearby athletics venue into a new football stadium, returning to their ancestral home where they started in 1905. The Eagles' territorial claim on that site is pre-eminent, their financial backing as yet invisible. Palace could yet even strike a deal with Spurs and end up with views across an eight-lane running track.

Sliding stands as in the Stade de France would have solved the sight lines problem, but the Olympics were won in the heady days of New Labour's noughties boom before the spectre of financial crash appeared around construction time. The discount re-design which emerged after recalculations neatly encapsulated the new age of western austerity after Beijing's tour-de-force 'Birds N
est' of 2008.

What once seemed like a shoe-in for Leyton Orient, the closest club to the Olympics site, has now become a spat between two Premier League sides that is starting to turn ugly. A gazumping
by Spurs would deal a near-fatal blow to Britain's hopes of ever hosting a major athletics tournament again, whilst confirming the great god of football rules unchallenged, making up the rules as he goes along.

But while the rising anger from the athletics world at Tottenham's interloping could swing it for West Ham, the race for gold and silver still looks too tight to call.

The Hammers have a more wholesome claim, which chimes with the Olympic spirit in which the stadium was created in the first place, but let us not be fooled. It is purely money, or the lack of it in their instance, which motivates any football club to subject its supporters to a dreaded running track.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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