Thursday, 3 February 2011

Why The Athletics Legacy Matters

Written by and sent in by MC

Athletics frequently likes to trumpet that, by all accounts, it is the country’s most popular ‘second favourite’ sport – as in when people are asked to list their favourite sports, athletics appears in second place more than any other. While it would be nicer to shout about the number of people who rank it as their favourite, we (I say ‘we’ – I am one of the aficionados who would indeed list it as number one) should arguably be content with second place. It’s worth remembering that, by the time next summer rolls around, there will be an awful lot of people who would gladly swap Olympic finalists on the track for an England football team in the final of Euro 2012. So being considered the most popular second most popular sport is probably not such a bad result.

Except we should remember that Woolworths was probably most people’s second favourite place to buy CDs, toys, and school uniforms. Most of us still have fond (if somewhat hazy and rose-tinted) views of their shops. However, the issue before their demise was that we increasingly found ourselves there only by chance – we would rarely, if ever, leave home specifically to go to Woolworths, although if we happened to find ourselves outside we would gladly pop in for a browse. We might have remarked that it didn’t seem to be quite what it was and have felt a slight pang of regret. But we didn’t change our behaviour, we didn’t start visiting more often – and when the company eventually collapsed we might have felt a stronger pang of regret but ultimately we shrugged our shoulders and moved on. We still had our favourites after all.

Athletics isn’t going to disappear, however there is perhaps a sense that some of the Woolworths analogy holds true nonetheless. Should we – and this time I say ‘we’ as a general sports fan, empathising with those who would rank athletics second in their list – be concerned? And what are the implications of this for the sport in this country, particularly in the context of a swiftly arriving London 2012 and a promise of ‘legacy’?

There are issues in the sport, some serious, but in actual fact I would maintain that the cause for immediate concern is limited. To borrow a quote I would say that reports of our demise – and there are some noisily propagated – are greatly exaggerated. Most are founded on greatly distorted memories of a halcyon past that would make the rose-tinted views of Woolworths appear positively grayscale. But, nevertheless, that doesn’t allow room for complacency. A looming Olympics on home turf has lifted athletics to an unusually – albeit somewhat artificially – elevated position. The attention and cash of sponsors is (more) easily grabbed and so, at least in principle, is the attention of the ‘you’re normally my second favourite sport’ public. That’s all fine for now, but what happens post 2012? Not so much what happens in 2013 when we can dream that the golden glow of a successful Olympics on the track and in the field is still illuminating the sport, but beyond that as memories of the action in London do inevitably fade? Must it be that the sport, the sponsors’ cash and the public’s attention will fade with them?

To some extent, yes. That will inevitably happen. But the exact extent to which athletics has to concede ground back to other sports is up for grabs – and that is a matter of legacy. Not the physical legacy of a stadium that has dominated the debate as West Ham and Tottenham have locked horns over the East London site: that athletics should secure a venue in the capital which is capable of hosting further major events in the future appears, thankfully, to be taken as a given. Purely from that perspective, the exact location of the bricks, mortar and mondo is relatively unimportant. Critics complain about transport links to Crystal Palace, however those concerns are overstated. And, whisper it quietly, in reality the Spurs proposal does make a lot of sense: a dedicated stadium for the sport to call its own and which would be a more appropriate and sustainable size for athletics than the 60,000 seater in West Ham’s proposal.

But that misses the point! The legacy isn’t about a single track in London; it’s about what can be set in motion at tracks up and down the country. It’s about what can happen post the games in clubs and schools nationwide. It’s about ensuring that a thriving and successful sport exists that sports fans can continue to hold dear as their ‘second favourite sport’, safe in the knowledge that if they drop by to browse they won’t be left thinking ‘well it ain’t what it used to be’.

For this to be achieved the legacy needs then to be as much ‘psychological’ as it is physical. If the Olympic stadium – soon to be home (we hope) to a series of unforgettable athletics memories – is torn down immediately following the games to make way again for football, what message does that send? The symbolism hardly needs explaining. Of course, sentiment and symbolism should not prominent in the evaluation criteria for the future of the stadium. Athletics has no divine right to the stadium, regardless of what ‘promises’ were made in Singapore. And it’s frustrating that athletics as a sport has not managed to better articulate tangible ways in which it will secure a ‘legacy’ through the continuing existence of athletics in the Olympic park. Given the pending decision, perhaps we can only now hope that we will have the opportunity to not just articulate ways but to demonstrate them too.

In the meantime, it has been encouraging to see surveys reporting popular support for the West Ham bid. We (the general sporting ‘we’ again) should be concerned that athletics might be given fifteen minutes of fame and then hurled off stage – comebacks from that position are rarely pretty and we might miss the on-stage action more than we think. So yes the location of that track in London does in fact matter, yes it should remain in Stratford and, yes, ‘we’ should all care about the outcome of the decision soon to be taken.

Written by and sent in by MC


  1. Good piece, MC, but why at the end of it do you think Stratford for athletics when it simply isn't sustainable or even justified.

    After all,it was just a political gambit from the beginning to help secure the IOC vote for London.

  2. Thanks for the response. I said Stratford as that will be the site of the Olympic Stadium. The bed-fellow of legacy is heritage. My view was that preference should have been given to any option that kept the stadium recognisably as just that - the Olympic Stadium - so long as it could be shown to be viable. In my ideal world there would have been a viable solution to have kept the stadium completely untouched post the Games - as it is, the West Ham proposal was the 'best' on the table from that perspective.

    I agree that the promises made in Singapore should not have been used as justification for a decision on their own (I allude to that in the article above). However the pivotal question is the one you raise about sustainability, not justification. Once the sustainability question is answered, justification becomes a moot point (so long as you agree with my view that the default position should be to retain the Olympic Stadium as close to as-is if at all possible). Would it be justified to overlook a sustainable proposal for keeping the Olympic Stadium standing and for keeping athletics in the Olympic Park so that Spurs could move in? I don't think so.

    So, the crux of the matter - is it sustainable? The chosen path is certainly the riskier option, however I believe that it can be made to work. And given that people with access to a lot more detail about the propsoals have been willing to take a punt on West Ham, hopefully that means they do too. That said, I think that from an athletics perspective the hard work is only just starting now. As a sport we need to be a lot surer, or at the very least more articulate, about why we deserve this opportunity, why we will continue to deserve it, and how we will make it work. The legacy isn't about the stadium in London per se, it's about the sport as a whole across the country. The stadium will give us a great foundation stone for the legacy - but it is in our hands as to whether we can build a lasting structure up from it.


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