Sheffield counts cost of staging student games

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The Independent Online
FEW people in Sheffield had heard of the World Student Games before 1986. Now hardly anyone in the city is likely to forget the event or what it has cost.

The very image Sheffield needed to banish, of mismanagement, political turmoil, strikes and disagreements, has returned with a vengeance.

It was in the summer of 1986 that the British Student Sports Federation suggested to the city council that it should bid to stage the XI Universiad, an international sporting and cultural festival for about 6,000 students.

It happened that the council was looking at ways to promote the city and link an event to economic regeneration.

In February 1987, Sheffield beat Edinburgh to be the official candidate for the games and effectively became the sole contender. The official auditor's report into the financial fiasco which was to follow says that the success of that bid effectively committed the city to provide all the facilities needed to promote a large sporting event.

The cost of providing those facilities was pounds 147m. Sheffield does now have some of the finest sporting and leisure facilities in the world, but will be picking up the bill over the next decade.

The cost of staging the event was pounds 21.4m and the pounds 10.5m overspend on that figure was the gap caused by lack of income from sponsorship, ticket sales and anticipated government help. The cost in terms of Sheffield's image and future development cannot be contemplated.

In November 1991 the Federation Internationale du Sport Universitaire (FISU) awarded the games to Sheffield. There were in fact no other bidders, for which the city has since been ridiculed.

The council then set up an outside company, Universiad GB Limited, to organise the event. But there were enormous difficulties and in June 1990 it was closed with debts topping pounds 3m.

The city council then took over and on 7 June 1990 asked Ray Gridley, its director of housing, to be the director of games administration.

In his report the district auditor, while recognising Mr Gridley's commitment, accused him of being less than candid about the financial state of affairs. He also said Mr Gridley made significant mistakes.

By December 1990 there were serious misgivings about income from sponsorship but it was perhaps then too late for the council to pull out. There was also a feeling in Sheffield that London- based journalists were being deliberately hostile to the games.

There were originally three financial projections for staging the event: pounds 17m, pounds 21m and pounds 27m, with each costing being matched to an equivalent income from sponsorship, ticket sales and grants to produce a 'nil cost'. At the very least local politicians expected support from the Government, sponsors and television companies.

Central government said during the run-up to the games that it had provided Sheffield with about pounds 28m towards those costs. This was misleading for the figure was reached by adding up all the grants for related projects, such as the urban aid programme, for which Sheffield would almost certainly have qualified anyway. The Sports Council did contribute pounds 2.6m.

By July 1991, when the games were held, it was obvious there would be a massive shortfall.

Mike Bower, leader of the Labour-controlled council, said yesterday that the games were the largest sporting event held in Britain. He then pointed out: 'The event had the verbal backing of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister but the Government failed to offer adequate help towards direct running costs.

'We feel the lack of support is just one example of the Government's hostility towards the city.'