Arena: Running with the winds of change: 12 Crystal Palace: Norman Fox explains how Britain's centre of athletic endeavour has been forced to move with the times

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The Independent Online
THE Crystal Palace National Sports Centre celebrates its 30th birthday on Wednesday, but nobody will make much fuss. Practical, functional, architecturally advanced for the time, it was a brave thing to build in the swinging Sixties, but it was never truly a national centre. Furthermore, has anyone ever loved a sports complex?

In spite of being made slightly more cosy by building a grandstand on what used to be the lonely back straight, the athletics arena is never a cauldron like the tiny Oslo home of the Bislett Games, and as long as there is a puff of breeze in south London, it will surely find its way down the home straight and make world records elusive. So when some of the world's leading athletes compete there in the TSB Games next Friday night, the chances are that the wind will blow in the faces of the sprinters.

Although there have been athletics events at Crystal Palace since the National Olympian Association had meetings thereabouts as long ago as the 1860s, traditionally the bowl that was originally intended to be a lake in the shadow of Upper Sydenham's palace of glass was a winter sports venue, home of football Cup finals until the First World War. Today's athletics stadium is built on the exact site of the old football ground.

While a lot of athletes have been happy to take the money and run, as far as is known only one great present-day champion has ever been known to shed tears about being deprived of the chance to appear at the Palace. Early in his career, Linford Christie was about to leave home when the all-powerful promoter Andy Norman phoned to say he had given his lane to a sprinter more likely to pull in the crowds. Over the years Norman more than made up for Christie's disappointment and it was the British Athletic Federation's former promotions officer's pragmatism that for a long time ensured that the stadium had crowds that helped balance the books and make it possible to fulfil the original obligation to provide sports facilities for the community at large.

When opened in 1964, the centre cost pounds 2.75m and a year's membership set you back five shillings. Almost immediately, it was condemned by the press and some politicians as a white elephant - a criticism that has never quite subsided. While there was, and remains, a need in the heavily populated south London for more sports facilities, the idea of having a national centre in a part of the suburbs served by one branch line and a network of congested roads was always questioned. In addition, most of the best London- based athletes of the early years were too attached to their own clubs to bother about moving to the Palace for training. Only the laying of an artificial track in 1968 persuaded more leading competitors to use the facility in preparation for the Mexico City Olympic Games, the first held on an all- weather surface. Three years later, the AAA championships, suffering from low attendances, left the White City for Crystal Palace, later to move to places where the sport was growing faster.

In spite of its many international invitation meetings, like the one next Friday, a European Cup final and Mobil Grand Prix final, the stadium has rarely been comfortable for the world's fastest runners. There have been world records, but in events hardly affected, or even slightly favoured, by gusty weather. A metronomic distance runner like David Bedford could plod out a 10,000 metres in 27min 30.8sec in 1973 and Zola Budd ran the fastest 5,000 metres in 1985. Four years ago, Steve Backley cleverly used the breeze in his face to set the world javelin record at 90.98 metres.

All through the Steve Ovett-Seb Coe years they managed to avoid meeting head-to-head at what was Britain's premier athletics stadium, but when either appeared so did the crowds in great numbers; as they did when Budd first arrived from South Africa.

For reasons usually out of its control, Crystal Palace may not be one of Europe's more popular athletics venues but the impressive athletics arena hardly has a daylight moment when there are not dozens of youngsters at practice or competing. It remains a place for action rather than audiences but the upkeep is such that almost anything that may draw a crowd is considered: rugby league came and went, mainly because visiting northern supporters got fed up with the journey, and American football has been tried without creating much impact. The slowest lap was recorded by the Popemobile and the largest number of conversions by Billy Graham, but even they failed to draw a record crowd. That is held by the pop group Depeche Mode, who attracted 36,000 last year.

(Photograph omitted)