A successful heart and soul transplant

Click to follow
Decked out in all the safety gear, an unexpectedly large media crowd invaded the turmoil of steel and pre-stressed concrete from which the Millennium Stadium, in Cardiff, is at last beginning to emerge. Knowing what a hard-hatted lot we are, the Welsh Rugby Union chairman, Glanmor Griffiths, welcomed us with the appeal: "Please, be positive about what you see."

This was greeted with knowing smiles. Stories such as "Stadium Will Be Ready in Time" create as much impact in newspaper offices as "All Planes Landed Safely Yesterday" or "No Trains Late Today". And yet, the next day's headlines did sport a generous smattering of reassurance about the lack of calamities about to befall the ambitious project that has been gestating for the past two years in the sombre gloom of Welsh forebodings.

There hasn't been a new stadium anywhere in the world that hasn't been built, block by block, rivet by rivet, to the accompaniment of doubts about achieving the scheduled completion date. In Wales, the lack of faith was compounded by the fact that the country didn't want the bloody thing in the first place. Most new sporting arenas fill a vacuum; this one desecrated a shrine.

The feelings that the Welsh had for the old Arms Park went deeper than mere sentiment. It represented the only discernible heart-throb of the nation and to destroy it, and to swivel its replacement around, was to meddle if not with the feng shui then with our teams' last remaining source of witchcraft.

Had we not seen Twickenham's atmosphere lost in a reconstruction that buried its soul in cold concrete? And what was the hellfire rush to replace a much-admired stadium of a not inconsiderable capacity of 52,000 when a few million would have, to talk colloquially, tarted it up tidy? Added to which, the rebuilding required the demolition of our only Olympic-sized swimming pool and, even allowing for Lottery money, required an investment that hard-pressed Welsh rugby can ill-afford.

The decision to go ahead with it has been the underlying cause of most of the frictions that have damaged the game recently. And, it being Wales, any project that starts on the wrong foot is not going to be left unattended by doom talk. We've had more gifted people working on the rumours than we've had working on the stadium.

The only outcome that could save the project, and the skins of those most closely associated with it, is that the arena immediately takes on the majesty and intimate aura of its predecessor. One must dutifully report that, suddenly, standing on the steps of what will be the Royal Box at the opening of the World Cup in October, you can now see enough of the shape and character of the enterprise to sense that it is going to flatten the cynics, among whom I have been happy to be numbered.

As the man says; it is time to be positive, and although there are doubtless many constructional adventures to go I think we may have a big success on our hands and that we can look forward smugly to watching Wembley go through the same wringer. Not that there's much sentiment to spill over that place, apart from the Twin Towers, about whose planned destruction we have not heard the last.

As we get dragged into the depths of another drug case that by its very nature seems certain to inflict more distress on British athletics, we can do no more than hope that one day they will devise a judicial process that does not so closely resemble the ancient horrors of trial by ordeal.

Athletics appears to have learned nothing from the scandal of Diane Modahl, whose career was ruined by drug charges that proved to be ill- founded. But a trifling matter like her innocence has not prevented the case dragging on after four years and a legal bill approaching pounds 1.5m.

A similar prospect now faces Doug Walker, who was suspended last week pending a disciplinary hearing into a drug test he failed on 1 December last year. There is no disputing UK Athletics' right to charge him, but the point is that by suspending him they are punishing him regardless of the outcome.

Even though metabolites of nandrolene, a steroid, were found in his sample, some scientists say that they can occur naturally or appear for other innocent reasons. Athletes from other countries have been cleared under similar circumstances.

Walker, however, faces the interminable idle wait. Four months have already gone by and many more are likely to pass while the lawyers burrow their way through their lucrative legal labyrinths. Meanwhile, Walker's sponsors have suspended the monthly payments he was living on, and potential earnings of pounds 100,000 on the track over the next five months are denied to him, as is valuable time in the development of what it is inevitably a short career.

Surely, an athlete protesting his innocence should be allowed to continue to compete during these long proceedings. The authorities could always reclaim the winnings if they are eventually found guilty. But some sporting bodies seem incapable of showing any consideration for the individuals caught up in these nightmares and I can't escape the suspicion that they share the old Iron Curtain appetite for show trials.

As of now, Walker is being severely punished for an offence of which he may well be innocent. That cannot be right.

It will be splendid if Double Thriller wins the Grand National on Saturday for more reasons than the pleasure of seeing the partnership of the trainer Paul Nicholls and young jockey Joe Tizzard rewarded again. It would complete the second leg of a spring double that would be particularly hurtful to the bookmakers William Hill.

When Hill's made a late withdrawal from a stock market flotation in February they sought to placate the thousands who'd attempted to buy shares by giving them a free pounds 20 bet. The only provision was that the bet had to be placed on a starting-price double naming the winners of the Lincoln and the National. This made it an act of dubious generosity, for these are the two hardest races to forecast.

In this column a month ago, I did suggest if sufficient would-be shareholders plumped for Right Wing in the Lincoln and Double Thriller in the National it might cause a touch of havoc in the market. Sure enough, 10,000 were on Right Wing, whose victory at 9-2 has sent a shower of money on to Tizzard's mount, who can be backed at 5-1 with some bookmakers, but only 7-2 with Hill's.

Hill's will have to pour money into the course bookmakers to keep the starting price down on Saturday, thereby distorting the market for the rest of us, but it will still be worth cheering Double Thriller home. Even if they lose the threatened pounds 1m plus, Hill's are pleased with the publicity and with the number of new punters they hope to have created.

If this turns out to be another favourite win, Hill's won't be the only bookie to be moaning. The industry's PR network has been spreading sob stories about profits being hit by a run of punters' successes. I find this hard to believe considering the number of long shots that have whizzed in since the Flat started, but Stanley Leisure, who made pounds 11m in the half of the year to November, have warned of a big dip in the second half.

Grieve not for them, however. Stanley's chairman, Leonard Steinberg, added the sinister words: "We know the situation will correct itself." You can bet your life on that.

Comments