Wembley gets a pounds 475m facelift (but it will cost pounds 20m more to put on an athletics meeting)

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DOUBT WAS cast on the prospect of staging sporting events, other than football and rugby, at the new Wembley stadium when it was revealed yesterday that it would cost pounds 20m and take six months to make temporary changes to the structure to enable an athletics event to be held there.

Although the stadium is being planned by Wembley National Stadium Limited (WNSL) - a wholly owned subsidiary company of the Football Association - and will be used mostly for football, the venture has received pounds 120m of National Lottery money towards the pounds 475m building costs and has been marketed as a venue for a variety of national sporting events.

The Football Association paid pounds 103m to buy Wembley from its previous owners, and WNSL will find the funds to complete the development through City institutions. But yesterday's disclosure is still likely to dismay those people, including the Sports minister, Kate Hoey, who had hoped the stadium might be used more easily as venue for a wide spectrum of activities, including the Olympic Games.

When the original plans for the stadium - construction of which is due to start next year and finish in 2003 - were unveiled in July, it was announced that the crowd capacity for football and rugby matches would be 90,000. This - according to the stadium's architect, Lord Foster of Thames Bank - would be reduced to 68,000 for athletics meetings, because a temporary track, on a concrete base laid six metres above ground level, would have to be built.

It was pointed out almost immediately after the original launch that Olympic stadiums need a capacity of at least 80,000, and that the new Wembley was being touted as the potential centrepiece of any future British bid for the Olympic Games even though it would not be big enough.

By yesterday, when Lord Foster unveiled his latest designs and submitted them to Brent Council in north-west London for planning permission, he said it would be possible to convert the new Wembley into an 80,000-seat athletics arena, but the cost would be pounds 20m and the conversion time around six months.

Because WNSL will not meet these costs, and because the latest designs have not yet been seen by the British Olympic Association - which would organise an Olympic Games in this country - there is concern about how feasible it will be to use the stadium for other sports. Questions are also being asked about who would compensate WNSL for up to six months' lost revenue if the stadium needs to be converted for athletics use.

Ms Hoey has asked Sport England (formerly the Sports Council) to commission independent technical reports of WNSL's proposals for increasing the capacity for an Olympic Games, but the reports are not expected until Friday.

Simon Clegg, chief executive of the British Olympic Association, said yesterday: "I've heard about [the new proposals] second hand, because we weren't invited to today's [Wembley] press conference. We have to put our faith in the hands of the independent reports that the new proposals meet our requirements for an Olympic bid.

"I'm absolutely determined this will not compromise any future bid for the Olympics in any way. Even the Sports minister is starting to ask whether this new stadium really is a national stadium or whether it's just a football stadium."

Yesterday's developments will diminish the chances of an athletics World Championships (perhaps in 2005) or an Olympic Games (in 2012 or beyond) being staged at the new Wembley unless the organisers of such events find the finance for the transformation costs.

Even though WNSL has an agreement that allows the stadium to be used for those two events, should they come to England, the cost may prove prohibitive. UK Athletics and the British Olympic Association, the governing bodies that oversee such events, would not be able to afford the cost, and would have to rely on funding from a future government - something that cannot be guaranteed.

The cost and difficulty of converting the new venue for athletics was not the only contentious issue to arise yesterday as the stadium's architects formally unveiled their latest designs. Brent Council said in April that it specifically wanted a warm-up track to be part of the new complex, but no such track appears in the plans. If the council stalls on planning permission and it has not been granted by next July, when Fifa, football's world governing body, decides on the venue of the 2006 World Cup, England's bid to stage the tournament might be jeopardised.

It was also revealed yesterday that the stadium has changed in shape - just four months after the design was originally unveiled. Instead of the twin towers being replaced by four giant masts, they will now be replaced by a steel arch, 140 metres high.