How showpiece stadium can be a winner for London bid

New Wembley The inside story
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This past week a 10-person delegation, led by Barbara Cassani, have been in Lausanne asking questions of the International Olympic Committee on behalf of the London 2012 bid. This time next year, the IOC themselves are likely to be asking questions of the London team, and one of them may well be: "Why aren't you making better use of Wembley?"

It is exactly a year since Wembley's ancient walls came tumbling down and work began on the rebirth of what is destined to be the world's biggest, plushest and costliest emporium of sport. It is also seven months since the Twin Towers were finally reduced to rubble and sent to the great recycler in the sky.

What is to replace them is a 133-metre illuminated arch which it is hoped will become as familiar a London landmark as St Paul's, from where it will be visible, the symbolic guardian of an edifice that the architects and constructors tell us "will take the breath away" when it is unveiled early in 2006.

So doesn't it seem daft to use it only as bit-part player in which, if the vote goes London's way, will be the greatest show ever to be staged in Britain? That is the £757m question the IOC may feel entitled to ask, for at the moment the Games plan is for New Wembley only to host a handful of football matches. Yet football is not regarded as an important sport in terms of the Olympics, and will be even less so if Great Britain, who have not fielded an Olympic team for 30 years, again fail to do so on home territory.

Could the answer to those questions be for Wembley to stage the most glamorous showpieces of the Games, the opening and closing ceremonies? It would be the perfect venue, with 90,000 seats and an atmosphere to equal anything London's rivals could offer. It is certainly a more viable option than the ludicrous suggestion of building an expensive temporary stadium in Hyde Park, which the IOC would not swallow.

There are, of course, logistical and traditional reasons why, at the moment, using Wembley may be deemed as not feasible - the fact that London's bid is based on the regeneration of London's East End, and the IOC charter, which declares the Olympic flame must be lit and burn over the main Olympic stadium, currently earmarked for Hackney. But these can be overcome, certainly the latter, under the progressive IOC president Jacques Rogge.

It is also a factor that by the time the IOC's evaluation commission make their ultimate assessment of the bidding cities Wembley will have taken shape, finally banishing the spectre of Picketts Lock and showing that Britain is actually capable of delivering something special - we hope on budget and certainly on time, for at the moment the project is five weeks ahead of schedule.

Leaving aside the question of the ceremonies, Wembley can be a winner for London simply by being there, because the IOC inspectors, looking for weapons of mass construction, will at least have something to observe in hard concrete rather than just relying on pieces of paper and a lot of imagination. Even sceptics such as myself, who continue to believe that Wembley should have been rebuilt with a permanent but coverable athletics track à la Stade de France, which would have made it the focal point for a London Olympics, cannot fail to be won over by what we are seeing now.

Built with Australian expertise, bankrolled by the Germans and with a multinational workforce of 700, which will be doubled next year, Wembley is rising from the ashes of despair and derision. Even Sir Rodney Walker, who has no reason to be enamoured after rescuing the project from the fanciful clutches of Ken Bates before himself being jocked off by politics after initiating the remodelled version, admits: "The public have no conception of just how magnificent this stadium is going to be."

Aussie David Hendrie, on-site director for the Perth-based constructors Multiplex, says: "There will be no other stadium to match it. It will be the world's largest edifice with covered seating."

The first publicly visible evidence of this will be in January, when the arch, at present being assembled like a giant flat-pack, will have its 15 steel tubes, each weighing 85 tonnes, "stitched" together ready to be hoisted into place. The arch, which will flash whenever a goal is scored, will become the support for a roof covering all spectator seating. The London Eye could be slotted inside it.

There is a cost, of course, not just the three-quarters-of-a-billion outlay, but to the whole idea of Wembley ever being a People's Stadium. The exclusive Club Wembley, currently raking in orders of around £1m a day, will generate 70 per cent of the income from the 19,000 seats to be sold in corporate and individual debenture packages, for which most of the meagre 2,500 car parking spaces will be reserved. But a Wembley spokesman, Nick Barron, says: "We either do this or ask the taxpayers to pay for the stadium."

If some of the financial implications for the punter's pocket are hard to stomach, the grub certainly won't be. Wembley's once-dreaded catering will no longer be based on the mobile greasy spoons which proliferated in the precincts. Instead, the emphasis will be on fine dining, inside the stadium and out, more Pret A Manger than pie and chips, with some 688 food outlets under an American franchise, including London's largest haute cuisine eaterie, seating 1,900.

About the only thing the Wembley planners have not yet sorted is the turf: where it will come from and what sort it will be. They are working on that now, and you can be sure they will not let the grass grow under their feet.

But, the Olympic question apart, there is another one that needs asking. With all that is now happening in the game, does football actually deserve such a glittering prize?