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West Ham not to blame for Olympic Stadium ‘deal of the century’

Article by Tom Burford

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West Ham United’s much maligned move across London to Stratford is now only one season away and although many of the clubs supporters are beginning to be convinced by the move, residents of Newham who will end up with a chunkier tax bill feel otherwise.

It’s a situation that has been waiting to erupt for some time and finally began to come to a head last month when London Mayor Boris Johnson and Labour MP and shadow culture secretary Chris Bryant were at loggerheads over the decision to make West Ham tenants on a 99 year lease.

Although I would agree that this entire rigmarole still produced a hugely successful Games, I’m still not too sure that the original legacy set in place when we entered the bidding process back in 2005 was correct at any point prior to the induction of the coalition government.

With a background in Sport Development, I know only too well that Labour and The Tories have very different attitudes to the role of Sport in our society. Labour are very much participation focused, making sure that barriers are broken (how many times did I hear that at University!) to ensure all can get access to Sport. The Conservatives, on the other hand, put their focuses and the vast majority of their funding into elite sport. It’s very much a chicken and egg situation, without elite sport focuses, the chances of major honours for our sportsmen and women will fall, but those who reach the pinnacle of their sport had to be participants at one stage and a larger pool of participants is likely to produce a larger crop of successful elite sports men and women.

The change in government in 2010 really didn’t help matters. Their conflicting sporting ideologies have without doubt affected the Olympic legacy in further areas. But in terms of the stadium, I’m very much in Boris’ corner, no fiasco has been ‘cooked up’ in this process, in the words of Mr Bryant, only the adjustment of a legacy that was completely infeasible in the first place, ironically ‘cooked up’ when Labour held office when this Olympic Bid was being formulated.

The original plan for the stadium was for it to undergo a 55,000 capacity reduction and exclusively host track and field events. The reality is that there are very few track and field events in the calendar that would attract such crowds, and two of them only happen every 4 years in varying countries (World Champs, Commonwealth Games).

It was beginning to become clear that the only sport that could draw such regular crowds and deliver a financially sustainable future would be via a Premier League football team as the stadium’s anchor tenant. This would, however, be going back on the original legacy promise and it did cause rival bidding city Paris to consider lodging an appeal against awarding London the Games.

West Ham and Tottenham were the two serious bidders for the venue, with West Ham vowing in their manifesto to keep the athletics track, a key part of their bid and one that was in line with Britain’s Olympic bid to the IOC. Tottenham however would completely demolish the stadium and re-build without a running track. This was clearly the least favourable bid in terms of legacy fulfilment, but they were encouraged to agree to complete a refurbishment of Crystal Palace’s current athletics stadium.

Tottenham’s bid was strongly opposed by IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) President Lamine Diack at the time, claiming that London needed to keep to their legacy promise.

“To now demolish the Olympic Stadium, throwing away the original £500m investment of public money to me seems and outrageous proposition… Instead, let’s keep London’s promise alive and leave an athletics legacy with a top football club as its partner.”

Now while it’s likely West Ham will be viewed as the anchor tenants as opposed to athletics, what Diack says is exactly correct. West Ham shouldn’t be scrutinised for the seemingly minute percentage that they are paying towards the stadium, the truth of the matter is that The two Davids and Karen Brady would have worked tirelessly to get the best deal for the club as they have the best interests of the football club at heart (as did Tottenham and Barry Hearn’s Leyton Orient) The have, in fact, stuck to every legacy promise that was made. The argument on whether taxpayers should foot the bill or not is a debate for another day, but I’m sure they would be happier to continue to pay for the revamped Olympic Stadium that have to pay for the demolition and rebuilding of a new stadium on top of the original that has so far cost £701m (if you include the renovation).

Example sections of the legacy promise included “Inspiring young people through sport” and “Transforming prospects/places” – West Ham are looking to accommodate all areas here, supplying 100,000 free match tickets to young volunteers in the borough of Newham whilst also creating thousands of jobs in and around the Olympic Park, to be filled by Newham council’s job centre.

The Olympic Stadium will now host (on top of regular West Ham fixtures) – Major Athletic events with a capacity 30,000 bigger than the original design, potential NFL games after Wembley’s deal is up in 2017, Essex CCC’s Twenty20 matches and also 4 games at the 2014 Rugby World Cup.

It’s not just that West Ham achieving the legacy goals focused on inspiring a generation, but millions will be inspired by the other sports taking place at one of the greatest sporting venues in the world.

This is why I don’t believe any blame should be placed at West Ham’s door, they were just in the right place at the right time to profit from the shambles that is London 2012’s Olympic Legacy.

You never know, one of those 100,000 free tickets might see a future England international be inspired by his first ever football game, as he or she couldn’t afford to attend any other top London clubs as they would have to pay upwards of £40 for a ticket.

Had London’s Olympic bid campaign sorted the legacy problem out in the first place and not naively figured that a small athletics stadium alone would fulfil the games legacy, I’m pretty certain we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and maybe the Hammers wouldn’t have leased the stadium for as little as they are doing so now.

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