Athletics does not deserve this stab in the side

By Mike Rowbottom
Friday 28 March 2014 06:03

In the wake of the Government's decision to ditch the Picketts Lock project, I am reminded again of the phrase uttered by John Cleese in the film Clockwise, as he plays a headmaster struggling desperately and vainly to reach a speaking appointment on time: "It's not the despair; it's the hope."

The journey on which UK Athletics has been involved since it was first encouraged to bid for the World Championships by the Government in 1997 has been, in retrospect, an experience of mounting indignity.

Even so, the latest twist of the knife in the side – or should that be the back? – of a sport which, following an outstanding Olympics, could claim to be Britain's most successful, is hard to credit.

The warning signs were there at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport when the Secretary of State, Chris Smith, and Minister for Sport, Kate Hoey, were replaced after the Election by Tessa Jowell and Richard Caborn respectively. The Government quango Sport England balked at providing the project with the £60m of Lottery money which had been earmarked for it and Caborn instituted a review of the scheme to be conducted by Patrick Carter, a millionaire businessman and friend of the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw.

During the World Championships in Edmonton which were held shortly afterwards, Caborn flew out to assure the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, Lamine Diack, that the Government was still intending to stage the championships. But after giving a speech full of vague promise, Caborn became fractious when questioned over what appeared to be a very straightforward matter – the location of the Championships.

Officials from the IAAF had always said they were to be held in London, and when the Wembley project fell through they were satisfied to take Britain at its word and accept the revised location of Picketts Lock, in Enfield.

Suddenly, disconcertingly, Caborn was not speaking the same language. Words were coming out of his mouth, but they didn't mean anything. You didn't have to be Dave Moorcroft, chief executive of UK Athletics, to develop a queasy feeling. At that moment, I felt that if I were to ask the Sports Minister whether the following day was Wednesday, he would have had to get back to me.

Sensing a window of editorial opportunity, one of the reporters present, who works for a Birmingham paper, suggested that as the Minister was not ruling the city out, it could logically be ruled into the equation. He received no definitive reply.

Now that the definitive reply has been belatedly delivered, the thing that is perhaps most objectionable about the Government's position is its attempt to put a positive spin on the fact that it has gone back on a succession of promises and damaged any future bids for Olympic Games or World Cups.

Certainly £120m is a lot of money for a stadium. But so was the original projected cost of constructing Picketts Lock, just under £90m. Has £30m tipped the balance? How does that weigh against losing your reputation for reliability and straight dealing?

The initial British bid for the 2003 World Championships, which had to be shifted onwards two years because of delays over the refurbishment of Wembley, saw Tony Blair writing to the IAAF and guaranteeing that the stadium would be ready to host the event.

Thursday's attempt by Caborn to suggest that the Government was still fulfilling its manifesto promise to provide a top-class stadium for the championships was one of the least edifying aspects of the whole sorry business.

But the new Sports Minister has simply inherited a mess, and done what he was told. Once the first promise was made, and hope raised, the stage for this farce was set.

Personally, I feel for Moorcroft, who has performed marvels of patience and positive thinking in an effort to ensure that athletics gets something of lasting use from this dismal process. If I were him, I would want to scream my frustration with the Government from the rooftops. But, poor man, he can't do that, in case this peevish administration withdraws even the sweeteners it has had to provide involving improved training facilities for élite athletes. One day, I feel sure, he'll look back on this and cry.

In the meantime Britain has the problem of restoring its reputation internationally. A successful staging of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester next year will help. But, in future, I think it might be safer to pursue a different course.

Given the amount of outstanding video representations of stadiums and their landscaped environs which have been screened in recent years, visions that never came close to construction, I think Britain is now ideally placed to host the first Virtual World Championships.

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