Saturday, 19 November 2011

Are You Pulling My Legacy?

The Olympic Stadium just hours before
the 2012 games begin. Lord Coe
is confident of its punctual completion,
and of Elvis
arriving in time to perform
at the opening ceremony.

For those of you that care, London has been awarded the 2017 World Athletics Championships. I say it like that because I expect that not many people do. Not that much anyway. Certainly it pales into sporting insignificance when compared to the glimmering spectacle of the Olympic games to be held here next year, and for many, constitutes a far duller prospect. It’s a bit like being out in a bar: you get chatting to a confident and gorgeous girl/guy, and bask in their glorious presence for a short while as they pay you the attention you’ve worked so hard to receive. Before you know it, he or she leaves and you’re left talking to their awkward, shy and ugly cousin, and despite doing their level best to impress you, you would much rather they just went away forever.

That’s what we’re dealing with here, and I’ll tell you why. It’s because most people don’t see athletics as a sport. Simple. It’s a spectacle: a once-in-four-years reason to care a jot about a bunch of men and women running around a field and throwing things. If I ever tune in to such events, it is because of the outside chance of a javelin missing its target and nestling itself in the shoulder of a middle distance runner. It hasn’t happened yet.

I’m being slightly unfair – some people love running, jumping and throwing. So much so, they do and talk about little else. You know the people I’m referring to, and they’ve almost certainly bumped into you when you’ve been strolling romantically along the South Bank, or jogged absurdly on the spot next to you in yellow leggings while you’re waiting to cross the road. Fitness is important, I grant it, but that’s what gyms are for. Runners and jumpers are thus safely contained and shielded from the army of non runners and jumpers who try really hard on a daily basis to fight the overwhelming urge to trip them up or clothesline them as they bounce annoyingly past.

But I digress. The point is, athletics for most people is a spectacle, and not a sport. We all love the 100 metre final at the Olympics. Thousands of years of Darwinian achievement sandwiched into less than ten glorious seconds worth of explosive muscular contraction. Likewise, we all know Usain Bolt, and Asafa Powell, and, erm, the other ones. Similarly, the 200 metres are popular. And the 400, a little bit. The 800 metres is bearable, but anything longer than that and we’ll generally wait half and hour to rewind the Sky box for the last lap. That’s the sort of dedication the British public has for track and field athletics.

Thus, the World Championships constitute a watered-down version of this already diluted enthusiasm, and I will bet a discus throw of small change that the newly preserved running track around the national stadium will put fewer bums on seats than during its glory days in 2012, with the footfall of Olympic champions still echoing around its capacious, spectral shell. Don ’t believe me? Just look at the Crystal Palace complex during one of the absurdly titled ‘grand prixs’ next time it’s on TV. Ghostly.

But the point of securing the games was to ensure that the stadium didn’t turn into an athletic burial ground like Barcelona’s, right? Well yes, ostensibly. Coe and co will regurgitate the same platitudinous rhetoric of the ‘legacy’ and ‘sustainability’ of track and field athletics in this high-achieving land. But in reality, it’s analogous to a hungover fry-up in a greasy spoon café. Winning the World Championships saved their bacon. Just think, if London had lost out to Doha, then the egg deposited on faces would be runny and plentiful, just like after the failed World Cup bid, except with a half-billion pound stale piece of ovular fried bread as the centre-piece of the oily, tepid platter.

By securing the championships in 2017, the legacy committee has managed to justify retaining the stadium in public ownership; an 11th hour decision that saw West Ham lose out on its (previously ratified) bid for a new home. Without 2017, the farcical organisation of the stadium’s fate would have stood out like a world-class velodrome in Stratford. Which is another issue, for another time.

Cynical perhaps, but Coe got lucky here. Surely the concept of a legacy is predicated on deciding it beforehand? Otherwise it’s just chaotic bureaucracy buried in a happy accident. The Olympic organising committee has got so much right in the build up to the games that it magnifies the confusion surrounding the stadium ten-fold. The saving grace of it all is that the centrepiece of 2012 will be ready on time, a tremendous feat considering London’s recent efforts at building completion. It’s taken, for instance, nearly ten years to install the new escalators at Bank station, and as we all remember, Wembley was late (an eventuality that won some of its builders considerable sums of money at Ladbrokes).

And so, Qatar defeated, we jog inexorably on to the games next year. Excited? I am actually, and my ticket lottery win for the synchronised swimming will be put to good use. As for 2017, I would tell you here how to get your hands on tickets, but you’re not going to bother, right?