The Olympic Stadium fiasco

West Ham will be moving into a bizarre folly.

Back in 2008 Lord Coe, chairman of London's bid to win the Olympic Games said, "we are not in the business of building football grounds". Now three years, the public-sector organisation established to develop the park after the 2012 Games, has chosen a bid led by a football club West Ham to occupy and run the Olympic Stadium. Rather than demount the 80,000 seats to a 25,000 seat stadium for athletics only, as Lord Coe had suggested the London Olympic team would do to the International Committee, the stadium will be remodelled fo a stadium of 60,000 seats, that contains a permanent running track and a football pitch. This will cost £95m including £35m of public money plus a £40m loan from Newham Council.

What Lord Coe should have said is that he is not in the business of building good football grounds. Built in a cramped site on a bend in the River Lea, the stadium has minimal facilities. A simple bowl with seating around a field of play, it will contain no food outlets, no boxes and very limited hospitality. During the Games these will be provided in separate temporary structures on approach -- a situation that could not be countenanced for league football. It doesn't have a roof, and perhaps most importantly it has got an athletics track and an athletics track that must remain. It was designed to be an athletics stadium for the sport at its singularly most popular moment, the Olympics, and its far less well-supported quotidian level.

Couldn't the Olympic Delivery Agency have created a stadium that uses movable stands, something like the Stade de France in Paris? Yes it could, indeed when Spurs and West Ham were consulted on the stadium in 2006, this idea was mooted. But the body chose not to because of this idea that in the East End of London there would be a permanent home for athletics right at its heart. To understand why this was promised, one has to remember that the International Olympic Committee is a remote bureaucracy which uses the bidding for the quadrennial games as a means of asking the wider world to explain its very existance.

Lord Coe did this very successfully. By taking 30 children from the East End of London to Singapore as part of his permitted number of delegates in July 2005, and by reminiscing about how he an Olympian was inspired by watching the 1968 Olympic Games on television, Coe created an intoxicating image of the Games as a powerful tool for moral improvement and education to a body that was once run by amateurs but now had an annual operating cost in 2006 of $83m and a staff in 2008 of 400. The Games was awarded to London because they reminded the Olympics of its own narrative.

Once the 80,000 -seater stadium was built, though, this story fell apart. Who would the cost of demounting the stadium fall on? Who would pay for the maintenance of the stadium once it had been demounted? The existing home of UK athletics, Crystal Palace, had become an expensive burden on the London Development Agency. Wouldn't this new facility be another waste? Meanwhile football clubs eyed the stadium greedily. Even Spurs who had already been given planning permission for a new ground 5 miles away were enticed. So difficult were the discussions with the local authorities around the issue of planning gain proving that demolishing large parts of the Olympic stadum and redeveloping Crystal Palace for athletics without any public subsidy would still have been preferrable to them rather than pay for improvements to their home borough.

In design terms this will leave the stadium looking like a bizarre folly - a building whose structure and appearance - as if it was built from a massive Meccano kit - evolved from its temporary usage and change of programme. This in itself was a bastardisation of the exciting progressive work of practices like Archigram in the 1960s which posited an architecture of adaptability; of super-structures into which building could be plugged into, in order to fulfil an expansive, dynamic social vision and not as is the case with the Stadium in Stratford to reconcile the strange inconsistencies in the appeal of athletics; a sport which the OPLC itself referred to as "elite".

That empty symbolism though is nothing compared to the atheltics track that has to be on display permanently at the stadium in Stratford. The International Olympic Committee, a body whose dialogue with the world is undertaken entirely through symbolism, will be happy when a circle of polyurethane-coated rubber surrounds West Ham's first game in the ground. West Ham fans will be left to curse it until the day their team finally move out of the ground or the club goes back on its promise to retain the track. Until then, they can console themselves that Sebastian Coe surely did enough to salve his conscience and secure his election as president of the International Assocation of Athletics Federation.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism