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.

SIPA PRESS/REX
Show Hide image

"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge