Edwards goes on the attack over national stadium

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The Independent Online

Jonathan Edwards, who played his full part in Britain's European Cup athletics effort at the weekend, has followed up with an impassioned plea for the sport to have its own stadium.

As the newly returned Government deliberates yet again on the question of rebuilding Wembley, or even abandoning it and constructing a stadium outside London, the Olympic triple jump champion has accused it of being under the thumb of the football lobby.

"The Government is in thrall to the Football Association," Edwards said after providing the British men with their only victory of the second day in Bremen, Germany. "Athletics have been pushed around and is still being pushed around. It's been treated as an afterthought to football."

With the 2005 World Championships scheduled for London, plans are under way to host the event at Picketts Lock in a yet-to-be-built stadium that would be available for athletics thereafter. But the recent reshuffle in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which saw the departure of two ministers strongly in favour of the Picketts Lock option in Chris Smith and Kate Hoey, has raised concerns that another change in policy may be imminent.

A House of Commons select committee concluded last year that Wembley might, after all, be able to accommodate athletics temporarily in order to host the World Championships. Such a choice would leave athletics out in the cold after 10 days of tenancy, a situation which Edwards believes would be unacceptable and unfair.

"Athletics is probably our most successful sport internationally and we should have a stadium dedicated to its use," he said.

"It's become sort of a farce. Football is calling the tune – that is what precipitated Kate Hoey's going. Athletics needs its own stadium to aspire to. I think the sport is successful enough to warrant it."

There may be an indication of the Government's thinking on the issue next Monday, when the Sport England Council and the Lottery Panel hold a special meeting to consider a £60m application from the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, which is responsible for the Picketts Lock site. A £38m application from Manchester City Council, to go towards capital and running costs for next year's Commonwealth Games, will also be heard.

The newly installed Minister for Sport, Richard Caborn, has said that the final arbiter on the question of whether there will be a National Stadium, either at Wembley or elsewhere, will be the special committee set up by the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw. It has yet to meet.

Edwards' comment about the success of the British sport might have come at a better moment, given Britain's men have just finished in their lowest European Cup placing for 22 years.

But Max Jones, UK Athletics' Performance Director, was quick to point out in the aftermath that although his men finished fifth – with only Germany between themselves and the relegation places – they were also just seven points adrift of second place.

Although Britain managed to withstand eight late withdrawals last year to win the Cup in Gateshead, this time around the absence through injury of experienced performers such as Steve Backley, Colin Jackson and sprinters Dwain Chambers, Darren Campbell and Jason Gardener had a more telling effect.

Despite the counter balancing of better than expected performances from the likes of Simon Lees, third in the 800 metres, Chris Tomlinson, second in the long jump, and Rob Mitchell, fourth in the high jump, a fourth victory in five years never looked on after the men had trailed by 11 points overnight.

For the women, however, who finished a buoyant fourth just a year after scrambling clear of a relegation place, the weekend was a happier occasion.

Although they have finished on the podium four times in the last 10 years, there was a freshness about their performance in Germany which gave out the promise of even better things to come.

Kathy Butler's bold and unexpected 3,000 metres win on Saturday, in what was her track debut for Britain since switching back from Canadian nationality, put her in good heart for the World Championships which will be held in the country she recently left.

Susan Jones knows she will also be in Edmonton after gaining the qualifying standard with a British record equalling 1.95 metres, a performance that also made her that rarest of creatures – a victorious British woman high jumper.

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