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Too early to throw in the towel

Comment

Sometime between last summer and Christmas, Wembley Stadium lost its chance to host the 2012 Olympic Games. It did so, it seems, because Culture Media & Sport Secretary Chris Smith and the British Olympic Association didn't like the innovative plan to build a temporary athletics track above the permanent football pitch. Judging from evidence put to the all party Commons Culture Media & Sport select committee over the last few weeks, the British Olympic Association would have only been happy with a purpose-built, permanent athletics stadium.

Last summer it appeared that the design team of Modus, Mott MacDonald, Weid-linger Associates, HOK Lobb and Foster Associates had found a neat, cost effective way of reconciling the conflicting needs of athletics and field sports within a multi-use stadium. Smith praised the plans - complete with demountable track and field structure - when they were first unveiled last July, although he now claims to have had his doubts even then.

Athletics tracks are always a headache for stadium designers. They separate the crowd from field sports such as football and rugby, killing the atmosphere. Apart from events like the Olympics and the World Athletics championships, athletics does not pull the same sort of crowds as more regular events like Rugby League or FA Cup finals. So it is hard to justify building a permanent running track, given the demands of other, more popular, sports.

This explains why the most recent Olympic stadia were built with the idea of dispensing with the running track after the Games are over. The Olympic stadium in Atlanta has been (expensively) turned into a baseball ground. Stadium Australia in Sydney will lose its running track after this year's Games, as seating is brought closer to the pitch.

So why build a purpose-built athletics stadium on the off-chance that it will host one Olympics, perhaps a World Athletics championship and (if we're really lucky) a European Athletics championship? As it is, the BOA never even committed itself to choosing Wembley as the Olympic stadium even though it wants London to be the host city.

It seems that the BOA disliked the idea of a temporary structure for athletics so much that it was prepared to compromise Britain's 2012 Olympic bid.

But the Wembley designs are far from flimsy and appear well thought out, judging from evidence presented to MPs. The designers appear to have thought through plans for erection and dismantling in successive winters - Wembley's closed season. The designers also promised the select committee that seating could be suitably reconfigured without compromising sight lines while keeping the stadium to the required Olympic capacity.

Abandoning the Wembley Olympic option at this stage seems downright daft. It is easily the best located stadium of its size in London and, with no realistic alternative on the horizon (apart from remote Twickenham), it would seem logical to stick with its innovative design rather than throw in the towel so soon.

Andrew Bolton is the analysis editor of NCE

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