State of the art stadium proving beyond art of the state

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The Independent Online

As the British sporting establishment's struggle to create a national stadium reaches comic proportions, are there any general conclusions which can be drawn from the confusion?

As the British sporting establishment's struggle to create a national stadium reaches comic proportions, are there any general conclusions which can be drawn from the confusion?

Perhaps it all stems from the traditional British resistance to master-plans. The Americans can sit down - OK, win a War of Independence and then sit down - and draft a Constitution, with amendments included. The British constitution, on the other hand, is a piecemeal of historical accidents.

So while, in the last couple of years, there have been an intention to build a "state of the art" national stadium - in Manchester, or London, or both - no one seems able to agree on what state that should be. Increasingly, it seems, state of the art is proving beyond the art of the state.

This week's postponement of the Government announcement on the future of the proposed new £475m Wembley Stadium only pointed up the absurdity of the current situation. Given £120m worth of Lottery cash to insure that their Wembley redevelopment should be capable of staging athletics as well as football and rugby, the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, and his colleagues in Wembley National Stadium Ltd have run out of their lane.

They are standing by their proposed method of enabling a 90,000-capacity football and rugby stadium to become a 67,500-capacity athletics venue by accommodating a track on a concrete platform. This is despite the doubts cast upon the scheme by the recent Government-instigated report from stadium experts Ellerba Becket.

Even if the method prevails, a 67,500 capacity is unlikely to be enough for the British Olympic Association to secure the Games as it hopes to in 2012, despite the fact that the International Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, indicated last week that this was a respectable figure for such a purpose.

"We couldn't even bid on the basis of 67,500," said a very cross Simon Clegg, chief executive of the BOA, last week.

Meanwhile, athletics' hopes of cutting loose from the Olympic overview and trying to get the 2005 World Championships done and dusted in a 67,500-sized venue have been put on hold.

Britain's hopes of securing the 2006 World Cup have also been put on hold.

Oh what a lovely civil war.

Wembley, of course, has already hosted the Olympics - in 1948, when everyone else was so spent following the Second World War that there were no other takers for the privilege.

Nearly 50 years on, Britain has attempted to call in that favour as it has mounted Olympic bids from Birmingham and - twice - Manchester. The effective response from the IOC each time has been: "London, London, London!"

Even if Samaranch's latest IOC reforms are adhered to, including a ban on IOC members visiting bidding cities, the prospect of a 2012 Games being held at RAF Northolt - one of the options floated by an increasingly desperate Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, this week - does not look like a big vote winner.

Is it too late in the day, I wonder, to propose a few radical solutions to this vexed problem? None of them are remotely useful so they should fit well into the pattern already established.

Plan 1. Don't worry about setting a concrete platform into the Wembley bowl to facilitate athletics. And don't worry about creating seating that can be removed to reveal a track. Simply leave the seats in, and encourage Britons to become a nation of hurdlers.

Plan 2. If you are unable to offer a stadium which fits into the Olympic tradition, then seek to reshape that tradition. Encourage the Olympic movement to return to its roots by reviving discontinued events such as the four-mile team race, which could be run around, say, a football pitch, the 4,000 metres steeplechase (see plan 1) and the standing high-jump over, say, a crossbar.

Plan 3. Building a track of 30 to 40 metres instead of 400 would successfully reflect the commitment of Wembley National Stadium Ltd to Olympic ideals, and would have the automatic bonus of providing a new set of world records in all the running events.

Plan 4. Lobbying Juan Antonio Samaranch to extend his ban on IOC members visiting bidding cities so that they may not visit successful cities either. Alternatively, wives or partners of IOC members should be banned from shopping. Nobody will then care where the Olympic Games take place, and the whole thing can probably go to Manchester at the third time of asking.

Plan 5. Agree that if you want a stadium to host football, rugby and athletics, you should be clear about the requirements before you design it.

On second thoughts, scrub plan 5. It would never work.

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