London Olympic organisers ponder future of venues

London: As the soccer World Cup in South Africa builds up to a climax, questions are being asked about what will happen to its new stadiums once the fans have gone home.

Similar questions have already been put to the London 2012 Olympic organisers. They have been planning what to do with their venues ever since they launched their bid in 2005.

It is an issue that has dogged many large sporting events, most notably the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where weeds now grow between the seating of its main stadium and guards patrol the perimeter.

No other event can match the Olympics or World Cup for sheer scale, meaning the taxpayer often picks up the bill for maintaining empty relics.

South Africa, which spent 13 billion rand (USD 1.70 billion) building new, top-class stadiums and refurbishing existing venues, seems likely to follow some host cities in tearing down stadiums not long after the final whistle, economists say.

Host cities continue to build spectacular stadiums because events are staged not only for their benefit but also to promote global sporting bodies, Stefan Szymanski of the Cass Business School, City University London, said.

"What happens is that the host nation foots the bill and the condition of awarding the event to the host nation is that you will provide every possible opportunity for the organisation to brand itself and put itself in a good light," he said,

"So this (South Africa) is all to the greater glory of FIFA and London will be all to the greater glory of the IOC."

Athletics Track

London Olympic organisers set up a legacy company three years ahead of the Games, earlier than any previous host city, and stadium plans deliberately included flexibility in construction, allowing them to be scaled down.

However, lawmakers have already put the white-elephant tag on London`s 533-million-pound (USD 803-million) showpiece, so doubtful are they that a tenant will be found.

The 80,000-seat main stadium is set to be reduced to 25,000 after the Games but despite attempts to get soccer and rugby clubs, and even a cricket club, interested, talks have stalled over the organisers` commitment to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to keep the athletics track around the pitch.

The Olympic Park Legacy Committee (OPLC), a public sector company, has invited proposals, and hopes to announce a deal next year.

Last November, it said it had not ruled anything in or out, while the stadium has been provisionally included in England`s 2018 soccer World Cup bid.

Premier League soccer club West Ham are the preferred tenant for many, especially after they said in March that they could co-exist with athletics, but US sports and leisure giant AEG has been reported to have shown interest.

Failure to find a tenant would be politically embarrassing, and with a Coalition government bent on saving costs to tackle a record peacetime budget deficit, a compromise may be struck.

Maintenance Cost

Another venue that has struggled to secure a tenant is the 334-million-pound International Broadcast Centre and Media Centre. Organisers are looking for creative industries to move in, without success so far.

The government spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, issued a report in February which said that if no tenant could be found for these venues it could result in a maintenance cost of up to 276 million pounds.

Some may say rich Western countries can afford white elephants, but social activists and academics in South Africa say the billions would have been better spent tackling poverty, housing shortages and an HIV/Aids epidemic.

Others argue that Africa`s first World Cup can change the image of the continent forever and give new pride to a still divided nation.

In London, organisers say the 9.3-billion-pound Games will stimulate regeneration in one of London`s most deprived areas, bringing jobs and new homes.

"We have already generated a great deal of interest from potential operators and sports bodies vying for these venues but the Olympic Park itself offers us a bigger vision," Andrew Altman, chief executive of the OPLC, said.

"We have the opportunity to create a `must-see must-return` destination."

Bureau Report

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