Olympic Games: Olympics? There is nothing like a Dome
Sunday 05 December 1999
In the short term, the architects have until 15 December to come up with a viable compromise between an arena with ball games as its chief focus, and one with Olympic athletes spinning around it. This was the original brief in any case, so it will be intriguing to see how a compromise can be effected on a compromise, with the Football Association and their National Stadium company on one side and the British Olympic Association and their lobbyists on the other.
My limited experience of architects suggests they are ahead of doctors in thinking that they are shaping mankind's destiny, so I don't imagine that a last-minute intervention by politicians would be too welcome. For Lord Foster and his associates, it must have been similar to someone asking them to tag a Tesco supermarket on to Stansted Airport. The client is supposed to sit back, admire and stay schtum if they have any objections to the Grand Vision. We've already had some over-fashionable steel rigging replaced by a triumphal arch, so a further bun-fight over seating capacity, spectator eye-lines and the functionality of the track must be deeply irritating to the people behind the design.
But, in this instance, my sympathy is with the architects who now have to deal with the flak produced by a whole sequence of muddled thinking by the Not So Great and the Not So Good. These are the people who remain the prime means of decision-making when it comes to public structures in this country, people usually with initials after their name and whose inclination it is to keep the public itself out of the thinking process.
Why, in the first instance, did they deem that Wembley was so central to the idea of a National Stadium? All that this location had going for it was history and tradition, most of which could have been easily consigned to the dustbin of sporting history on the occasion of a new millennium. For the Football Association to use their pounds 120m grant from the National Lottery was a short-sighted decision, given that this vast sum merely acquired a drab, crumbling stadium in a humdrum suburban area, hemmed in by an industrial estate. How much better it would have been to deploy the money to find a site, not necessarily greenfield, nor necessarily in the South, with the potential to start from scratch.
But that deal is done now, with little likelihood of Wembley National Stadium Limited, the FA's subsidiary company, selling off the site and using the money to start again elsewhere. Of course, the FA were not helped in their decision- making by having their grant from Sport England made conditional on the provision of an athletics facility. Here, we glimpsed the culture clash between the regular needs of football and rugby fans, with a regular calendar of events, and those of spectators tempted to watch international athletics on an occasional basis.
Perhaps more significantly, there was also an entrepreneurial discrepancy between the flash, new world of football wealth and the egg-and-spoon amateurism of the more Corinthian bodies. Whether the BOA were guilty of trying to piggy-back their way into a new stadium or were the unwitting agents of government stinginess, I cannot say. It seems opportunistic, at the very least, that bids for the 2005 World Athletics Championships and a much later Olympics should have been so quickly predicated on a "stadium share" with the boys from the ball games.
Any sports fan could have predicted that the design demands would prove incompatible, even on the simplistic basis of needing a rectangle for football and rugby, and an oval for track events. British football fans don't like watching the game in athletics stadiums no matter how grand they may be. Indeed, my memory of seeing Liverpool win their first European Cup in the Olympic Stadium in Rome was tarnished by the abysmal view afforded from the curva nord. The nearest goal, into which Tommy Smith sunk his header and Phil Neal his penalty, was rendered Subbuteo-sized by the distance between terrace and pitch.
Subsequent travels around many stadiums in Europe did nothing to change the opinion that football became a diminished spectacle when staged in an oval stadium. Running tracks and long-jump pits diluted the intensity of the occasion, while visits to Wembley for Cup finals were always undercut by the bathos of the sand laid out for the evening's greyhound racing. Worst of all were the intrusions of the Horse of the Year Show or, latterly, American football, after which the sacred turf looked more like a second-hand carpet. In short, multi-purpose stadiums didn't work.
Yet now, with the Government implicitly threatening to claw back the pounds 120m grant - already spent as it happens - it looks as though we might end up with a Frankenstein's monster of a stadium, with extraneous bits tacked on in an attempt to appease both the football and athletics lobbies. Talk about ending in tiers.
Someone, possibly the shy, retiring Ken Bates, should tell the Department of Sport, Heritage and Culture and the BOA that English football needs a dedicated arena, not some half-cocked compromise. He should tell the Lottery mandarins to find the sort of money they so readily stumped up for the Royal Opera House and encourage the baton-changers, shot-putters and javelin-chuckers to look elsewhere. Any English summer Olympics would be guaranteed rain, so what about the Dome for a Home?
ANYONE needing to raise cash over the next six months could do worse than lump a few quid on Darlington, until last week more exotically known as "Axa Wildcard", to win the 2000 FA Cup. Reprieved from second-round extinction by Manchester United plc's preference for wintering in Brazil, Darlington are the logical selection, not just to beat Aston Villa next weekend, but to go the whole way at juicy odds. Before I'm grabbed by the men in white coats, or courted by the lads from the spread-betting firms, let me explain the logic.
The 1998 World Cup final was contested by two teams, France and Brazil, who didn't have to qualify. The 1999 Champions' League final embraced Manchester United and Bayern Munich, neither of whom were reigning champions of their domestic leagues. Now, the current Uefa Cup is more than likely to be won by one of the teams eliminated from the Champions' League and subsequently parachuted into the junior tournament. So what else could complete this sequence more fittingly than the FA Cup being won by a team knocked out in the second round? Go Quakers, go!
FOLLOWING the pounds 1.85m capture of L S Lowry by the Professional Footballers' Assoc- iation at Sotheby's last week, I hear that one club chairman made an offer for Cezanne at pounds 5m, while the Dutch lad Van Gogh could go for pounds 10m. Although both could be a lot cheaper under a Bosman ruling next summer.
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