17 February ~ In a little over two and a half years the £500 million, 80,000-capacity Olympic stadium in East London will stand empty, having hosted the main event followed by the Paralympic Games. By then the future of the costly venue will need to have been decided. Some argue the key to this is the presence of at least one permanent tenant. This may yet be West Ham United.
When they took over the Hammers last month, David Sullivan and David Gold announced that they were backing a move three miles away to Stratford, the site of the Olympic Village and stadium. This plan has been challenged, however, by those currently in control of the site. Sullivan says that West Ham have over £100m worth of debt, with excessive running costs having led to a £37m loss in 2007-08. To alleviate this the proposal is that Upton Park, the club's home since 1904, is sold and the Olympic venue rented. Their current ground is valued at around £77m – selling would trim the debt and help cover their share of the move's associated costs.
Such a move would mirror other post-Olympic tenancies such as Panathinaikos and AEK Athens in Greece, Espanyol in Barcelona and Bayern and 1860 in Munich. Of these only AEK will remain at any of those venues following this season. The others are relocating to purpose-built, athletics track-free stadiums. It is largely accepted that the presence of a track hinders the view of spectators and consequently has an adverse affect on atmosphere. Sullivan has said that the Stratford track would have to be removed, as was the case at Manchester City's Eastlands following the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Coe and his organising team insist there must be an athletics legacy. "It's non-negotiable that this is a track and field facility," he said. A compromise would be for retractable seating that covers the track, as used at the Stade de France, which would be moved in or out depending on the event. Though this would add greater cost to an already expensive project. Another proposal is that the top tier of seating is removed following the Games, leaving a reduced 25,000-capacity bowl suitable for athletic events and a tenant who would draw smaller crowds – Leyton Orient and Wasps or Saracens rugby clubs have been mooted in the past.
However, support for a larger, 55,000-capacity venue is growing with the England 2018 World Cup bid team, which has listed the stadium as a possible host venue, among those in favour. Should the stadium continue to stage athletics after 2012, then West Ham or any other tenant would have to compromise if they want to move in. But the greater capacity and resulting revenues may come to seem like a reasonable trade off for the inconvenience of a surrounding track. Tom Whitworth