Sunday, 3 March 2013

Ennis needs to be removed from emotive Don Valley debate

The closure of the Don Valley Stadium, Sheffield revealed on Friday was met with understandable anguish from the world of athletics and beyond. The South Yorkshire stadium, built for £29m to host the World Student Games in 1991, is to be bulldozed in September just a year after its most high profile user, heptathlete Jessica Ennis clinched gold at London 2012 in the only athletics stadium larger than it in the country. With the word 'legacy' increasingly ridiculed as the chaotic debate over the future of Olympic Stadium rages, the decision is a bloody smash to the jaw for all those who had thought the under-appreciated sport would be sacrosanct in the eyes of UK councils for the next few years at least. 

On a simply mathematical level, the decision by Sheffield's Labour-run City Council appears the only option. The stadium costs £700,000 a year to run and a £1.6m repair bill was looming over the 25,000-seat venue. With local authorities and charities' budgets tightened by a Coalition Government with arts, culture and sport low on their shopping list amid a huge deficit, the reality of the situation is that the stadium was not viable. Moreover, while most large venues struggling to make ends meet in the UK have diversified into money-spinning concerts amid a spurt of reformations in the last 10 years, the Don Valley has struggled to rival the 13,500-seat Motorpoint Arena in attracting acts. 

One of the main reasons the decision has riled so many people is, of course, Jessica Ennis. Sheffield's golden girl, who made me and so many others proud to be associated with the city last summer, was first spotted as an athletic talent at a summer camp at the stadium when she was 10. Ennis' crowd-drawing ability is not in doubt as anyone who witnessed the crackling atmosphere on the morning of her first appearance at the Olympics or the 20,000 fans who turned out to see her given the keys to the city seven months ago will attest. She still trains at the stadium two days a week and her presence would doubtlessly attract hoards of fans to meets there when the outdoor season begins. 

However, Ennis is now 27 and few would bet against her retiring after the Brazil 2016 Olympics Games, a proven champion and a living legend as well as doubtless a model and pundit following her career. Ennis tweeted her dismay at the Don Valley's demise last week and said she had "great memories" of the stadium while her coach Toni Minichiello expressed anger. Sheffield City Council needs to look at what a stadium for the future looks like. At the moment, the stadium is empty for 23 hours of the day, used only by the likes of the Hallamshire Harriers club in the evenings or, until last year Rotherham United. Schoolchildren rarely use the facilities despite the attention given to the impact of the Olympics on the younger generation. The council has proposed to refurbishment of the nearby dilapidated Woodburn Road stadium in Attercliffe which was closed 18 months ago as a compromise. 

Observers will be watching the refurbishment project closely to see how outwardly the local authorities bang the development drum. If the potential gold medallists of tomorrow have walked out of the door with the Don Valley's closure, then it would be a great shame. The decline in number of great British athletes has long been in discussion - despite Ennis, Farah and Rutherford's golds in London, the six track and field medals was just about on target. Much like in tennis, a few individuals have masked a wider dearth of talent in British athletics from strong heritages in long distance running and triple jump. There are a multitude of reasons for this including cuts in National Lottery funding as well as lucrative wages in other sports such as football. However, this weekend's European Indoor Games shows we still have plenty of young talent.

Ultimately, the key is that athletics, whatever the effect of the Olympics, does not regularly draw crowds large enough to justify a 25,000 seater stadium. Likewise, the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre is rarely anywhere near full. In reality, a smaller venue with other functions such as gigs as well as facilities such as gyms and swimming pools - a discipline Sheffield excels in - would be much more appropriate. Furthermore, the English Institute of Sport, a £24m facility opened in late 2003, also offers great opportunities to develop talent.

South Yorkshire is one of the key hotbeds for British athletics and, with careful planning and a heavy dose of realism, it will remain so. 

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