An Olympic ideal

Posted by Peter Thorne

The 2012 London Olympic StadiumGettyImages / ShaunBotterillThe 2012 London Olympic Stadium

With strong rumours that this week could see the end to the long-running saga involving West Ham's attempts to move to the Olympic Stadium, I thought it was time to re-visit the arguments.

During his excellent summation of the continuing frustration over the direction of the Olympic Stadium bid a couple of months back, my colleague Vinny Ryan made a salient point about the lack of real understanding of what exactly a move to Stratford would mean for West Ham United.

This issue is probably the biggest decision that the club has made in its history, but I'll admit it's a subject I haven't tackled since returning to ESPN from a year in the Championship wilderness because to discuss it again means I'll need to state my feelings on the matter from the off. Nevertheless, such an important issue needs to be aired so, if you'll bear with me, here goes...

Somewhere out in cyberspace is the column that I wrote on the very day that London was designated as the venue for the 2012 Olympics. My initial reaction was elation - I'd already seen the changes around the wasteland that formerly surrounded the Stratford site, as preliminary building and preparation were made to ready the area for the inspectors visits - and the idea that the world's greatest sporting event was coming to the borough I was born in, my own back-yard, was a thrilling thought.

It should be understood that outside of Seb Coe and his team, British Sportsman and latterly, Boris Johnson, I'm willing to make a spurious claim for being the most enthusiastic supporter of the London games outside of LOCOG. Just weeks before the event were due to start - on the day the G4S fiasco was announced - I was caught arguing vehemently with a disbeliever in a restaurant.

"Let's be honest it's going to be ****, isn't it?" he said. I was insistent: "No, it's not - it's going to be the greatest sporting spectacle this country - perhaps the world - has ever seen".

I was adamant that the Olympics would be a success and happy and proud that it was. The fact that - quite unexpectedly - I found myself involved in a small way during the deliverance of the games with a contract in the main stadium has in no way marred my argument. I was a believer from the off. It's true though, I have been able to play the role of something of a Devil's Advocate.

However, my initial response to the successful bid announcement was, firstly, that the local Premier League football team that represented the area should seize the - quite literal - once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to heighten its profile and make a bid to increase its fan base. Something, to be honest, the club singularly failed to do. (They even closed the club shop that was on the main concourse between the park and the station!).

My second reaction was to suggest that there would be a large park that had already been designated as a sporting venue post-games and West Ham should immediately make overtures to find out about building a purpose-built football stadium in the grounds.

I had no idea what the future Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park would look like - unsurprisingly, my imagination would never have run to the grand and beautiful spectacle that it eventually became - but it was, to use the regular parlance, a total no-brainer. Part of the park was going to be in the Borough of West Ham, the rail and road infrastructure would be in place, the area could handle the large influx of 40,000+ fans each week, there was a golden opportunity to bring in fans from outside the immediate area and, what's more, we could all eat like kings in the shopping centre close by.

More importantly, it was obvious to me that the Government would be keen not to be saddled with another monolithic white elephant and a possible political torpedo. The Millennium Dome had taught a lesson to everyone and it was imperative that the equivalent leap from Dome to O2 was made immediately after the games, before public opinion blew in the air of negativity that followed the ill-fated Millennium Exhibition.

I remember going to a winter 'show' at the old Dome in 2003 and it was one of the most profoundly depressing experiences of my life. Shortly after, the building nearly became a multi-million pound pile of rubble but, sensibly, a way forward was found and we now have one of the most iconic and vibrant buildings in London. The O2 is a fantastic venue and the decade in-between the structure's two lives were a working example of what not to do with the public's money. Recent history gave us the lesson; we couldn't afford to ignore it and allow the Olympic Park to be treated in the same way.

Funnily enough, I stuck with my 'football ground in the park' argument for most of the time that the building was going on. I say 'funnily' because I've never really understood why it was never mentioned elsewhere. I'm pretty sure my columns were the only place I ever saw it suggested. It may be, of course, that it was never an option and land would never have been given over to the exercise, but to this day I've always wondered why.

I'm not sure either when the West Ham to the Olympic Stadium suggestion first arose, but I do recall thinking it was a rather grandiose hope when it was. I mean, much as I love them, it can't be argued that the Hammers' have the profile of Arsenal or even a Manchester City and that was one big stadium to fill even at a reduced capacity. Once it was it mooted though, it brought to the fore the very arguments we are still having to this day.

If the Athletics legacy part of the Olympic bid is adhered too - and let me state quite clearly that I believe it should be - then we are looking at football club playing with a running track. "It won't have any atmosphere", they said, and to be honest, up until June I would have thought so too. But I've heard the noise in that place - admittedly 80,000 people making it (but more of that later) - and I thought my eardrums were going to burst. Due to the design of the building, the noise is retained and 'circulated' (Don't ask me I'm just telling you what I was told) and the atmosphere is absolutely electric.

"We won't be able to see anything" they say. But the first thing I learnt when I set foot in the Olympic Stadium is that somehow - and I don't know how but it is - the sight lines are better than those in the Boleyn. I've sat in the front row and I've sat in the back - hell, I've even been up the gantry with the birds - and the viewing is excellent wherever you go.

What about the extending seats over the running track idea? Well, to a layman (i.e. me) the difficulty there would appear to be that it would mean the first 20 or so rows are all on the same level or, were they to be banked, the people in the front seats in the arena proper wouldn't be able to see. I've thought that the track itself could be lowered and this may be part of the plan but, as it stands, none of us know.

Of more importance though is the fact that the structure is composed of two elements; a building inside a building, if you will. The whole thing resembles a giant Meccano set and it is, in building terms at least, a relatively straightforward job to disassemble and re-assemble parts of it wherever they are required.

In some stadium blurb that I found, I've actually seen the building described as 'semi-temporary'; everything below the concourse is permanent but the rest is up for grabs. The lower part is actually sunk into the slope of the park and has a capacity of 25,000; the upper part holds 55,000 and is designed to be disassembled. In short, West Ham and UK Athletics - or indeed anyone else who wants in - could move into a structure totally different from the one we see now.

Now let me make it clear from here on, everything I have mentioned above makes no sense to me. I cannot imagine the upper or lower part and, even though I spent several months underneath the structure (I even sprinted down the indoor 100m track - don't ask my time though, will you?), I have no real understanding at all of this temporary shell, nor could I point it out to you.

West Ham and Tottenham have fought a fierce battle for the Olympic Stadium in Stratford
GettyImagesWest Ham want to call the Olympic Stadium home

What I can tell you is this: the stadium built for the Olympics was a magnificent success, but it was also built in keeping with the demands of the legacy requirement and, as such, there are elements planned into the structure that most of us who are not designers and builders will have difficulty understanding. Those same designers and builders will be involved in the restructuring and they will have plans and ideas that most of us could barely comprehend.

So, political machinations aside, when West Ham fans are polled about their feelings on moving into the Olympic Stadium - and again Vinny made mention of the nonsensical percentages that flow from the question - the truth is that most people are voting for something they cannot possibly imagine.

I've seen the comments: "We can't fill an 80,000 seater stadium". No, and at no stage was it ever the intention by the LLDC that the stadium would remain exactly as it was. Capacity is just another of these non-issues. I think the sole stumbling block - no pun intended - is that running track and truthfully it is something that should have been though about beforehand. But I honestly believe that shouldn't be a deal-breaker either for UK Athletics or West Ham United. If Danny Boyle can build an English pastoral scene and turn it in 10 minutes into a industrial landscape, then I'm sure a temporary measure can be put in place to solve a mere running track.

I'm convinced that a re-vamped Stadium can be up and open in two years maximum and it is something that all parties should strive for. West Ham Plc are the obvious choices to enable the stadium to work as both a theatre for general weekly use and the option for it to be utilised as a venue for international or major competitions for athletics or, indeed, other sports. But, if plans for temporary seating are part of the new plans and those plans mean we're still three or even four years away from moving in then I guess we're going to have to live with it. The point is that West Ham United and UK Athletics - and, frankly anyone else who wants in - should surely be able to make this work. It needs to work.

The only obstruction to an acceptable solution is political wrangling, pointless posturing, intransigence and stupidity. It stopped the Dome becoming the O2 for seven years. If we're not to waste time again then, hopefully, this week will see sense prevail.

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