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.

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times