Does anyone want a nearly new stadium? If so, London seems to have one still going spare. The city’s new 80,000-seat facility in the Olympic Park has yet to find a permanent post-games occupant, even though bids for the privilege were supposed to have finished by May 21. Faced with limited enthusiasm, Olympic chiefs have put back the closing date for bids by eight more weeks. If a viable bid doesn’t turn up soon, there is concern that the building may end up as one more Olympic white elephant.
If so, it will join a large rank of Olympic projects that partially failed their transition into civilian life. Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium, for example, now sees more action as a tourist attraction than a sporting facility. While it hosts some soccer matches and track and field events, Reuters stated last month that the stadium’s current annual revenue will not allow it to recoup its costs for at least 30 years. Athens’ 2004 Olympic Stadium, meanwhile, is edging toward dereliction, too expensive to maintain for a government struggling to deliver basic services. Used for some sporting events and rock concerts, the building is at least still functioning, unlike the majority of Athens’ Olympic venues which now lie empty. Overall, the country's more recent Olympics have left such a poor legacy that, despite Greece’s recent bonanza of sports spending, many Greek athletes now choose to train in the better-maintained facilities of nearby Cyprus.
London Olympic organizers are keenly aware of their predecessors’ problems. This is one reason why soccer teams have been prime candidates to take over its new stadium. Soccer matches have a frequency and popularity in Britain that athletics meets can’t hope to match, making the sport the most economically viable use for the stadium. With the building unlikely to earn much as a tourist attraction (its humdrum functionality has seen critics dub it "an Ikea Stadium," even though it cost far more than Beijing’s stunning effort), this viable sporting future is doubly important.
The problem is that this transition from athletics to football stadium has already proved a bit of a saga. Last autumn, local soccer team West Ham United’s application fell through when rival teams pointed out that, with a £40 million boost from Newham Borough Council, West Ham’s bid was receiving illegal public funding. Soon after, four men associated with rival soccer team and bidder Tottenham Hotspur were arrested, suspected of spying on the officials responsible for deciding the stadium’s future. When the stadium was then put back on the market, new (unpublished) bidding terms were apparently so unappealing that some hopefuls withdrew from the field altogether.
Despite this shady, untidy bidding process, some soccer team or other should still be found to take the stadium over, lured by the prospect of yet another injection of public money to convert it. It won’t be an effortless conversion, however. Left close to its current state, the soccer pitch would be marooned at a remove from spectators within a running track. Even if this is filled in with extra seating, the stadium will lack steep, tiered stands rising directly from the pitch’s edge, a key feature that gives soccer stadiums their relative intimacy. Despite all this, London does have small cause to be pleased with itself. Given the poor sporting legacies of some other Olympic Games, the city’s embattled efforts to keep its stadium viable after the summer at least shows some evidence of clear forward thinking.
Top image: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters