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.