Let’s hope it’s “au revoir” to Crystal Palace, not “goodbye”

Last weekend’s London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace means that next year will be the last time that international-class athletics is staged at the neglected, crumbling old stadium.

Decried by m’colleague Jason Cobb and his onionballs blog and described in today’s Daily Mail as a “khazi” by Charlie Sale – a man who has been in few khazis in his time – for some, Crystal Palace won’t be wiped off the global Diamond League circuit soon enough.

Yet with 17,000-plus spectators for each of the two days of the meeting, Crystal Palace remains the only athletics venue in Britain that reliably sells out all its tickets. And with 34,000 customers, it is also the world’s biggest paying attendance for grand prix athletics.

It has been nothing short of mendacious stubbornness by British athletics officials that has seen other major events, notably the annual national championships, taken to Birmingham and Manchester, where they could not manage to fill a 6,000-seater training stadium even for the 2004 Olympic trials.

Now, not unreasonably, it is expected that the Olympic Stadium at Stratford will stage Britain’s televised international athletics events from 2012 onwards.

There are sure to be many advantages in staging the event in a purpose-built, state-of-the-art modern stadium.

But as someone who has been going to athletics events at Crystal Palace for 40 years, I do think we might miss it when it is gone (because sure as eggs is eggs, our neighbours at Bromley Council are just itching for an excuse to stop paying for the maintenance of the facilities there).

  • Local businesses will miss the trade that the venue brings in to Croydon, such as the 500 athletes, managers, officials and journalists who stay at the Croydon Hilton, Jury’s Inn and Croydon Park Hotels over the course of the week.
  • The athletics training facilities, including the track, the vitally important indoor training area, the weights rooms and gym, even the undulating paths around the park, remain one of the major facilities for the sport south of the Thames.
  • Generations of kids from local clubs including South London Harriers, Croydon Harriers, Blackheath, Cambridge Harriers, Herne Hill Harriers, plus the dreadful poachers from Belgrave and many others still depend on the facilities at Crystal Palace.
  • Leading internationals such as European 110m hurdles champion Andy Turner have moved in to the area in order to train there.
  • The venue has staged European Cup and World Cup athletics, and witnessed countless record-breaking performances; it has hosted a Papal visit; it was for a long time the home of American football and rugby league in London. Given a little imagination and modest investment, it could continue to host money-spinning concerts and events for years to come.
  • It is 24 years since Britain last staged a European junior athletics championships. Britain has never yet staged the World Juniors or World Youth Championships, and as someone who has worked at all three events, I can assure you that Crystal Palace remains a much better facility than some that have hosted the meetings. Teenaged athletes from around the world would be thrilled at the chance to compete at such an event in London.
  • Crystal Palace rail station is now on the East London Line extension, offering a decent public transport solution which might help to relieve the dreadful traffic congestion in and out of Anerley Hill before and after the meeting.

That Crystal Palace became the national athletics stadium at all was an accident of poor planning. Dave Bedford, whose cavalier record-breaking exploits did much to bring the crowds back to athletics in the 1970s, once told me that, “The only reason the sport went to Crystal Palace was because the people who ran the AAA in the 1960s did not have the balls or the vision to think that they could still attract crowds of 30,000 to the sport like they did in the 1950s at White City.”

In the mid-1960s, when Britain needed its first all-weather “Tartan” track to prepare its athletics team ahead of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, athletics officials opted for the south London venue, built with just the 7,000 main stand. By default, the Palace became the sport’s home for the next quarter century, the Jubilee Stand adding much-needed extra seating from 1977.

Record-breakers: Steve Ovett tracks Kenya's Henry Rono on his way to a 2-mile world record at Crystal Palace in September 1978

Over time, and for far less than one-tenth of the £560 million being lavished on the Olympic Stadium at Stratford – where about 25,000 seats won’t even have the benefit of being under the stadium’s roof – Crystal Palace has provided five decades of great service and some wonderful sport.

Let’s hope that despite the arrival of Stratford and the Lea Valley Stadium, sports officials don’t forget about the importance of Crystal Palace to athletes and athletics fans in south London, Kent, Surrey, Hampshire and Sussex. London’s Olympic “legacy” does not only mean shiny new facilities built at a cost of millions of pounds; it can also mean the shrewd and judicious strategic use of facilities that for too long we have all taken for granted.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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