diamond geezer

 Saturday, March 23, 2013

It's taken a while, but West Ham are finally confirmed as the long term tenants of the Olympic Stadium.

It's taken a very long while. In 2004 London's Olympic bid made it clear that the stadium would absolutely definitely be used for athletics, but by 2006 the Sports Minister was in talks with West Ham (and others) about bringing in a football tenant. The stadium design unveiled in 2007, with removable upper tier and no internal infrastructure, appeared to rule out football completely. But as the years go by that "sustainable" decision has been seen as increasingly unsustainable, with a football team the only sensible legacy option. West Ham and Spurs then fought for the right to move in, the latter somewhat cynically, with Leyton Orient shouting "unfair" from the sidelines. Legal issues then stopped West Ham being named the legacy tenant, until economic pragmatism finally won out and the prize was theirs. At long last.

Many have complained that West Ham are being handed this asset almost for nothing, and that a private company is effectively hoovering money out of public funds. Why did the Treasury blink first and throw another £25m into the pot? How did Karren off the Apprentice get away with only a £2m downpayment? How can the local council afford to give West Ham £40m when they can't find money for basic local services? And no it's not a great deal, but it's better than the alternative which is a white elephant decaying at the heart of a new East London neighbourhood that needs to thrive. Things went irretrievably wrong when the go-ahead was given for a downsizeable stadium, not that this was obvious at the time, when the inevitable football option suddenly became much more expensive.

Years of indecision have also created considerable delay in reopening the stadium for its new purpose. Not so long back it was hoped that football might kick off in the Olympic Stadium in 2014, but now that won't be happening until summer 2016. That's four whole years after the Olympic Closing Ceremony, indeed it's beyond the next election for Mayor of London. It's so far away that West Ham could be playing in the Blue Square Bet Conference Premier by then, although Davids Gold and Sullivan very much hope not.

Retractable seats are going in, that's finally been agreed. They'll give a much closer view of the pitch than is currently possible from behind an athletics track, as those of us who've sat back there will attest. There'll also be a bigger roof, because a stadium designed for summertime might not be ideal for a home match in January. The roof gets rebuilt first, ready for the Rugby World Cup in 2015. Then the World Athletics Championships come calling in 2017, which mean West Ham get kicked out at the start of their second season here. Sharing with national and international events is going to be tough, but that's the price you pay for not paying a very high price.

Geographically speaking, this move finally brings West Ham into the County Borough of West Ham - half of the current borough of Newham. A further bonus is that any West Ham fans accidentally getting off the tube at West Ham won't have too far to walk. But with Stratford due to become the main station for stadium access, expect Saturday afternoons at Westfield to become a little less attractive for shopping. One consequence of all this is that I'm suddenly going to have a local football club. The Olympic Stadium's less than a mile from my front door, so I'm very much in West Ham's catchment area when they try to fill 20000 additional seats. But I doubt I'll be taking them up on their offer - the atmosphere at a football match couldn't possibly be the same as last summer's Olympic buzz.

And what of Upton Park? E20's gain is E13's loss, and the foot of Green Street is going to be a quieter place at weekends when the football departs. Claret and blue fans will no longer pour out of the Boleyn pub, nor jostle for a burger and ketchup from a stall on the pavement. No more will star players drive up beneath the castle turrets and sign autographs for kids through the railings, nor a roar go up across the surrounding streets when the home side scores. In May 2016 the site will close, and the stands will be transformed into flats and a retail centre, and this'll become yet another corner of the suburbs where history no longer happens.

Yesterday's tenancy decision sets in motion one further unfortunate change. When West Ham move in it won't be possible to call this the Olympic Stadium any more, because the naming rights are being sold off. Instead some multinational will stump up millions for West Ham's coffers and stamp their own identity on the scene of 2012's golden triumphs. Will it be the McDonalds Arena, or the China Telecom Stadium, or the Westfield Annexe, or some other ghastly combination of marketingspeak? Enjoy the last few summers before the football starts and life returns, but the Olympic flame finally extinguishes.

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