Ovett joins the Palace guard

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Dave Bedford and Steve Ovett, responsible for two of the 21 world records set at Crystal Palace in the last 30 years, returned to the scene of past triumphs yesterday to plead for the survival of athletic facilities there.

They were among a number of leading athletes and administrators who gathered to defend the only athletics training facility of its kind in southern England against a threat of imminent closure. Later this month, a report commissioned by Bromley Council and the Sports Council - respectively owner and leaseholder of the Crystal Palace site - is expected to recommend that the centre be redeveloped without any provision for athletics.

The Sports Council, which is reported to spend nearly pounds 1m per year in subsidising the national sports centre at Crystal Palace, is bringing forward its planned return of the lease to Bromley from 2004 to next year.

The situation has been widely greeted as potentially disastrous for athletes both at grass roots and elite level. Richard Simmons, the British Athletic Federation coach for the South-east, said 13,000 athletes had used the facilities last year. He added that a protest petition had already attracted over 5,000 names, including 30 international athletes.

Angela Littlewood, the BAF's South-east development officer, said bulldozers were likely to move in a day after the lease was handed over, demolishing indoor and outdoor tracks and the main stand.

She pointed out that Wembley, due to house athletics in a new national stadium by the year 2000, was not a realistic alternative. "It will not provide any day-to-day training," she said, adding that the whole question of deciding the future usage of Crystal Palace was premature, given the current debate over the location of the National Academy of Sport, and its planned regional satellites.

Ovett commented: "It's a joke that we are here today. What sense is there in tearing down a facility when there is nothing to replace it? We've got to decide in this country how seriously we treat sport."

Bedford, who set the world 10,000 metres record on the Palace track in 1973, said: "We should be improving this facility and developing it, not destroying it." And Geoff Parsons, director of the British Athletes Association, said the current dilemma was symptomatic of "the lack of strategy in British sport planning''.

Depriving Crystal Palace of athletics facilities at a time when so much store was being set by the government on improving national sporting performances was, he said, "a ridiculous message to send out''.

Peter Lamb, director of the Crystal Palace Complex from 1990 until September 1996, said that it had been Bromley's idea to regain the lease early in order to complete their development plans in the park.

He said those plans included restoring the original 19th century walkway through the park, which goes directly through the indoor athletics hall. He also discredited the idea that athletics would be a disproportionately heavy burden on Bromley's tax payers, adding that of the annual pounds 1m cost of the site to the Sports Council, almost pounds 900,000 went on rates, utilities and maintenance.

The Sports Council said yesterday that they would not be taking any long term decisions about Crystal Palace "without prior consultation with the relevant sporting governing bodies''.