Britain’s Olympic heroes and heroines had barely stepped off their homecoming flights from Tokyo than coaches and administrators were warning that the promised “sporting legacy” of greater participation and increased achievement and excellence is being squandered through neglect and lack of investment in facilities in south London.
More than 31,000 people have already signed a petition calling for the urgent reopening of the main 50-metre pool and the diving pool at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, which have been dry and unused for 18 months awaiting “urgent” repairs.
At least five of the medals won by Britain at the Tokyo Games came from competitors who at some point in their formative sporting careers had trained or competed in the Palace’s pools, including modern pentathlon champion Joe Choong, triathlon gold medal-winner Alex Yee and diving hero Tom Daley.
Research by Inside Croydon has found multiple instances, though, where a combination of covid-19 lockdowns and decades of deliberate disinvestment in sporting infrastructure is making it very difficult, if not impossible, for a new generation of south Londoners, inspired by the feats in Tokyo, to have somewhere to try new sports or train for greatness.
In Croydon alone, Purley Pool, with its swim teaching facilities as well as gym training complex, has been closed since March 2020, with no prospect of being reopened any time soon.
The Croydon Sports Arena in South Norwood (like Purley Pool, council-owned and operated by Greenwich Leisure under their unironic “Better” brand) has not been able to stage any senior or club track and field competitions for two seasons now, the facility needing to renew its TrackMark status. Club athletes were only allowed back in for training in June.
In Wandsworth, athletes and coaches claim that the state of Tooting Bec athletics track – where Tokyo 1,500metres semi-finallist Katie Snowden started running – is so badly worn it is a risk of causing serious injury. The track has not been relaid by the council since the mid-1980s.
The track at the world-famous Crystal Palace Stadium, once the home of British athletics for half a century, is in an equally neglected and sorry state. John Powell, one of the leading athletics coaches based there, reports weeds and even trees growing in the stadium (which is also supposed to be managed by “Better”), while the nearby indoor training area is infested with rats.
Local swimming pools at Bellingham, West Wickham and Orpington’s Walnuts leisure centres, all in Bromley, are meanwhile scheduled to be closed for redevelopment in the next two years.
The pool at the Eric Liddell Sports Centre at Eltham College, previously open for public use outside school hours, has recently had that availability withdrawn.
But it is the lengthy delays over the repair works to the near-60-year-old pools complex in a Grade II-listed building at Crystal Palace, with the only Olympic-sized racing pool in south London, which is causing increasing levels of concern over its future.
The centre is one of the most accessible in the country for public transport, and lies in one of the highest populated areas in London with historically huge demand on its facilities.
Alex Harrison is the chair of Swim England, London. In a letter this month to Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, he wrote, “For decades, the competition pool and the diving pit were the only elite sporting facilities for swimmers and divers in the city, and even now for a city with a population of over 10million people, CPNSC is one of only two facilities that can adequately cater for elite swimmers, divers and water polo players.”
What is perhaps most extraordinary is that Harrison is having to re-state the very same arguments which were put forward 20 years ago, when London was first bidding to stage the Olympics in 2012, when it was promised that hosting the Games would see an improvement in legacy sports facilities in the capital.
As Tokyo gold medallists Yee and Choong have demonstrated, it won’t only be swimmers, divers and water polo players who will suffer if the Palace facilities are not maintained or upgraded.
Without the 50-metre racing pool and diving pool at Crystal Palace, Harrison told Mayor Khan, “The loss of these facilities would have a devastating impact on the sporting landscape in London and leave us trailing behind other areas of the country.”
Track coach Powell, the chair of the Crystal Palace Sports Partnership, echoes those comments. With his organisation’s petition still attracting strong support, he said, “Hundreds of signatories have also commented on the potential devastating impact for London sport should the situation not be rescued very quickly.
“Nearly half of TeamGB’s divers competing in the Tokyo Olympics came from the world-class diving programme based at the centre. But now aspiring Olympians are having to commute all over the south and east to find a suitable training base.
“We know as Mayor of London Sadiq Khan wants to preside over a proud and successful sporting legacy. Well, now is an opportunity to make a massive difference to thousands of Londoners by saving one of the most celebrated and iconic sporting venues in Europe.”
And Powell warned that any swimmers, divers, runners or multi-sporters who might want to compete at the Paris Olympics in 2024 will have their “hopes and dreams shattered unless urgent action is taken”.
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