Athletics: Samaranch gives boost to Wembley

JUAN ANTONIO Samaranch stepped into the row over the future of Wembley stadium yesterday when he said that an arena holding 65,000 spectators would be big enough to host the Summer Games.

Last week the Government, with its eyes on a possible 2012 Olympic bid as well as on its campaign to host the 2006 football World Cup, gave Wembley officials 14 days to find a better way of rebuilding the stadium so it could stage track and field as well as football.

The demand came after the Sports Minister, Kate Hoey, commissioned a special report as plans showed it would be able to accommodate only around 65,000 for athletics events. British Olympic officials said that this was not big enough.

But Samaranch, the International Olympic Committee president, said: "I think 65,000 is enough. I think Barcelona [which hosted the 1992 Summer Games] was less than 60,000. Why not? For me, it is enough. In the Olympic Games and the World Cup, the number of spectators, 60 to 65,000 is enough. The importance is the billions of people watching on television. We have no rules there must be 65,000, 80,000 or 90,000."

As the controversy over the venue for a British Olympic bid continues, British athletics, still hoping to host the 2005 World Championships, yesterday attempted to suggest a way forward by dodging the Olympic issue altogether. Dave Moorcroft, chief executive of UK Athletics, set out an agenda on behalf of the Championship bidding group which offered his sport what he described as "the best of both worlds."

While the Government is due to announce on 15 December whether the planned conversion of Wembley stadium into an athletics venue is feasible - by inserting a 15-foot high concrete platform accommodating a track into the centre of the stadium - Moorcroft has no option but to hope for the best.

Working on the assumption that the rebuilt Wembley will not be completed in any form until 2004, he is calling for an athletics venue to be in place when the stadium opens, which would save an estimated pounds 20m. And Moorcroft wants athletics to take advantage of Wembley by staging a special meeting to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Roger Bannister's four- minute mile.

Moorcroft believes the sport can meet the challenge of filling the stadium - which would have a capacity of 67,000 - for such an event, and believes it would form the ideal precursor to the following year's World Championships. Looking beyond 2005, Moorcroft suggests that the warm-up track which would have to be in place for any World Championships could be expanded to form a separate national stadium for athletics with a capacity of approximately 25,000, which he believes would be sufficient to host events such as Grand Prix 1 meetings, the European Cup and perhaps, the European Championships.

The two possible sites for the warm-up facility are either on the car park site next to the stadium or to the north of the stadium on what is currently a light industrial site, though this would involve a compulsory purchase order.

But there was a sense that the World Championship bidding committee were clutching at straws yesterday as even Moorcroft acknowledged that it looked "more and more likely" that Wembley would end up as a stadium for football and rugby.

Moorcroft reflected ruefully on Sport England's request that the World Championship bidders should stay at arm's length from the negotiations over Wembley's design. The Sport England contribution of pounds 120m worth of Lottery money to the project was given on the understanding that Wembley should house football, rugby and athletics. But now that usage is in doubt. "In hindsight we should have forced the issue and said we must be involved at every stage of the negotiations," Moorcroft said.