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Icon of the month: The Olympic Stadium

Paul Powell


Was it really 12 months ago that we were shouting at television screens, chatting on trains, raving about post boxes and ranting over empty seats? That we developed a fervent appreciation of modern pentathlon, Greco-Roman wrestling and even the labyrinthine logistics of the cycling keirin?

For two magical weeks (and again a fortnight later) the British populace underwent a collective loss of marbles. Forget Agincourt, Waterloo and ITV's Broadchurch - unhinged consensus was that London 2012 was our greatest hour.

As the dust settles and the medals gather dust, critics dare to pose the positively thorny question of legacy. What has survived that glorious summer? Well, Westfield shopping centre has gained a spacious back garden, ticket touts need never work again and mod sideburns have become the epitome of cool. We may have squandered a fortune but we have memories that will never fade. Precious memories of Super Saturday when Jessica Ennis ran, jumped and tossed like Tigger on a pneumatic drill, when Mo Farah achieved immortality by screwing up the actions to 'YMCA', and when Greg Rutherford jumped into the only sandpit in London that doesn't double as a litter tray.

However, a battle continues to rage over the centrepiece of that sporting smörgåsbord. The Olympic Stadium may have hosted world-class track and field but now it's embroiled in a grubby tug of war. A sporting pantheon where athletes stretched sinews in search of glory is now bending over backwards in search of cash.

When the bidding process for tenants opened in May 2010, submissions arrived from all corners of the sporting firmament. Football clubs and cricket teams, athletics groups and rugby champions jostled for position alongside concert promoters and entertainment giants before giving way to legal appeals and judicial reviews. At the death, West Ham United Football Club dived for the line and seized gold. Tottenham Hotspur huffed, Leyton Orient puffed and London Mayor Boris Johnson did both as he ruffled his hair and winked at a passing journalist.

And so a national landmark dedicated to the pursuit of faster, higher, stronger was bequeathed to a national sport sullied by bigger, crasser, richer. With a 99-year lease, West Ham will be paying a mere £2m per year in rent. Fans may be forever blowing bubbles but the club won't be blowing a fortune.

Redesigning the stadium will mean removing 26,000 seats, extending the roof and smothering the running track with retractable seats. The estimated cost varies between £150m and £190m, with £60m coming from the Treasury and just £15m from the club.

Reacting to the inevitable backlash, the Mayor argued that the deal would generate substantial long-term revenues, as well as creating thousands of jobs and revitalising a depressed part of east London. This view is violently opposed by former Sports Minister Richard Caborn who branded the decision 'the biggest mistake of the Olympics'. Presumably he wasn't aware of Wenlock and Mandeville.

Despite hosting athletics events this summer and the Rugby World Cup in 2015, the transition to working football stadium won't be complete for another three years. And if Stratford considers itself depressed now, wait till it witnesses West Ham's endless parade of long-ball football.

Ultimately, it's a discussion about the continuing relevance of a much-loved building and the challenge of reconciling a glorious past with a meaningful future. About balancing the demands of big business with the needs of the local community.

I can't help making comparisons with the church. Are we too obsessed with the past to embrace the future? How much are we prepared to sacrifice to keep the church relevant? And most importantly, who do we serve - Governments and corporations or the local resident and the long-suffering enthusiast?

It seems the authorities have gone all out to prevent a famous institution from succumbing to the ignominious fate of white elephant. Twelve months on from that euphoric summer, has the Olympic Stadium triggered a second wave of collective madness?