After decades of damaging dither and delay, might an eclectic coalition of bodies, including a Premier League football club, be about to come up with a plan, and the cash, to revive the NSC? By STEVEN DOWNES
Might there be a glimmer of hope for the future of sports provision at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre?
For some newspaper readers at the weekend, they might have thought that they had been presented with The Times’s obituary for the NSC, as a lengthy article recounted the waste, neglect and broken promises suffered by the centre over the past three decades.
But buried deep in an article full of fond memories from the paper’s chief sports correspondent, Matt Lawton, were one or two not-so-subtle hints that there might be a change of fortunes on the way, brought about by an eclectic coalition of the Mayor of London, British Athletics, Sport England and, most unlikely of all, even West Ham United.
Lawton is one of the better sports journalists in this country, his understanding of sport outside the confined white lines of a football pitch owing much to his upbringing in Upper Norwood, which included regular visits to the National Sports Centre and the Grade-II listed sports hall and swimming pool, which he could see from his bedroom window.
Lawton learned to swim in those pools and in his teens, he trained on one of the world’s most famous running tracks. Few go there to run, jump or throw now.
It’s all a pretty sad, forlorn sight today.
Where hundreds, Olympic champions past, present and future among them, would turn up every Tuesday and Thursday night, and Sunday mornings, to be coaxed and cajoled by dozens of hard-working, expert and mostly volunteer coaches, these days hardly any bother to show up.
The emergency removal of the stadium’s 60-year-old floodlights before Christmas, their concrete pillars eroded and unsafe, makes the dark winter nights impossible for track work. Promises that emergency lighting would be provided, like so many promises made about the upkeep of the Palace, have been broken and forgotten.
Lawton’s article stemmed from a wander around the centre with John Powell, for the past decade the chair of Crystal Palace Sports Partnership campaign group.
Lawton remembers Powell as his former athletics coach. I remember Powell as the cross-country captain at Alleyn’s, the private school in Dulwich, who disqualified my mate Dave in an inter-schools race one year for no real reason, apart from to secure the match victory for his own school. I never liked Alleyn’s. But that’s another story…
Powell told Lawton of his fears that the £21million cost to refurbish the centre – where the track is worn out and the swimming and diving pools have been dry for three years – is already woefully inadequate to bring the place back to a standard which could, once again, host international track meetings and where thousands of south Londoners could learn to swim.
Crystal Palace was supposed to be part of London’s bright, post-Olympic future, what Lord Sebastian Coe promised as the post-2012 Olympic legacy. The reality has been the opposite.
“Now we have a situation where we don’t have a dedicated athletics stadium of a reasonable size anywhere in London,” Powell said.
The complicated and costly (to the public) deal which handed the Olympic Stadium in east London over to a Premier League football club, West Ham, has blighted community sport in the capital ever since.
Moves to abandon a 50-year agreement which allows for West Ham’s London Stadium to be turned over to track and field – as it was in 2017 for the World Championships – could see money that might otherwise be squandered on a temporary facility redirected south of the river to Crystal Palace.
“If there can be no legacy in Stratford, Crystal Palace makes sense,” Powell told Lawton. “It’s the right size for a Diamond League, will attract good crowds and it has that special history.”
As a sportswriter, Lawton knows what a story is. He was one of the few to chase down Coe, our Lord of the Rings, at a time when the 2012 Olympic chief seemed to be immune from all criticism, to ask him about the blatant conflicts of interest he held as head of the IAAF, the world governing body. And Lawton also has contacts – people on the inside who will tell him what’s going on.
His article joins the dots together.
The appointment, last September, of a £114,000 per year programme director at Crystal Palace. “The Mayor of London has approved a significant capital budget to refurbish this historic sporting venue to bring it back to its former glory,” Sadiq Khan’s office said at the time.
The rhetoric from City Hall, if anything, has become even more gung-ho. “The National Sports Centre is a hugely important sporting and community facility for the capital and the country,” the Greater London Authority told The Times.
There have been years of damaging dither and delay. Eight years were lost when Coe’s Tory pal, Boris Johnson, was Mayor of London, doling out juicy commercial contracts to… Coe, ostensibly to conduct consultation exercises to justify bulldozing the place and avoiding any maintenance costs. Then came the covid shutdown, and the discovery of cracks in the sides of the pools, and that’s before the fatigued concrete under the stadium’s floodlights was condemned.
Now, Mayor Khan is saying that he “will be announcing a development schedule in the next few months and looks forward to working with stakeholders to deliver an outstanding sporting venue”.
It’s been nine years since Khan, when merely a candidate for Mayor, was given sight of a blueprint for a more commercially viable future for the Palace, as the venue for European Youth swimming championships, World Junior athletics meetings, modern pentathlon, cyclo-cross, skateboarding and a collection of other events which, ultimately, would generate business and income for the boroughs around the NSC, including Croydon.
Such a programme could even be the catalyst for London’s devolved government to finally shell out on the long-promised tram extension to Crystal Palace.
International sport is not just about football World Cups and Olympic Games. Not every event needs an 80,000-seater stadium. But every world and European sports organisation wants to host their events in London. And that’s something that Crystal Palace continues to be able to offer.
Given that London last hosted the Commonwealth Games in 1934, a bid headed by Mayor Khan for the 2034 “Friendly Games” centred on the capital’s existing venues, including the Palace, would be far more viable than any expensive ego-trip that might seek a fourth Olympics for the city.
Powell blames the non-existent “Olympic legacy” for Crystal Palace’s current woeful state, where foxes dash about in and under the main stands in search of prey, mainly rats and pigeons. “Without a doubt that was the main catalyst,” Powell told The Times. “The Grand Prix was moved to the London Stadium in 2013 and this place was just left to rot.”
As many do, Lawton remains in awe of some of the mid-century architecture of the place, most of which came off the drawing boards of County Hall from the days of the old LCC.
“The intricate concrete frame that supports a teak-lined roof of the main sports centre remains a thing of pure architectural beauty,” he writes.
“The sports hall feels as inspiring a setting for basketball and other court sports as it always was.”
His former coach is a committed advocate for restoring the Palace to its former glories. “This was a centre of excellence as well as a superb facility for local people and the infrastructure remains,” Powell said.
“I’d argue that the capital city really should have a dedicated athletics stadium.”
The one-off professional international athletics spectaculars return to the capital this summer, when West Ham will roll up their green carpet of London Stadium turf to make way for the under-used track. British Athletics has to pay £3million for this “privilege”, another toxic element of the Olympic “legacy”.
Such an outlay annually is not sustainable going forward, and Lawton reports on a possible offer of £15million from West Ham to UKA for them to abandon their 50-year guarantee of access to the stadium.
“It would leave British Athletics needing a new home in London and Crystal Palace is the obvious answer,” Lawton writes.
Lawton has pieced together a scenario where, aided with cash from West Ham – paying out barely the cost of a Championship striker – and with GLA budgeted money, there could be a pot which other bodies, such as Lottery-funded Sport England and UK Sport, and the London Marathon would contribute seven-figure sums.
Lawton has spoken to Dave Bedford, who broke track world records at Crystal Palace in his heyday, and then spent 20 years making the London Marathon one of the biggest and best road races in the world.
It sounds very much like a typical briefing from “Bootsie”. Something is afoot.
“It’s a tragedy to see what has become of an iconic athletics venue,” Bedford told Lawton.
“If there can be no legacy in Stratford, Crystal Palace makes sense. It’s the right size for a Diamond League, will attract good crowds and it has that special history.”
Read more: Crystal Palace at risk as London squanders its Olympic legacy
Read more: Coe’s Olympic legacy promises left in ruins at Crystal Palace
Read more: When Cram and Ovett were kings who held court at a packed Palace
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Speaking with a little knowledge of the stadium in its 1970’s glory days (my sister ran there in some top athletics events) , I have a few thoughts /questions.
Firstly, in spite of the significant cost of repairs, the cost of doing so must pale into insignificance when compared with the cost of ripping down and rebuilding. Am I right, or wrong?
With a building, there is the structure, then the surface finishings.. Looking at the keynote structires, the stadium and the pool, what exactly is their structural condition?
They are well short of 100 years old, which seems to be a reasonable life expectancy for major structures made of concrete ( pool ) or steel (stadium)..
If the iconic and beautful building containing the pool –and indeed, the pool structure itself, is in fundamentally good shape, how much does it cost to get rusty pipework and changing rooms ripped out and replaced–or even just restored if that is appropriate.
High mast lighting columns installed in the 1970’s probably do have a 50 year life. It this case, it would seem that it is the concrete surrounds that have failed, not the columns that have corroded. Not sure if they are steel or concrete posts. OK, they will probably need to be replaced entirely. Not a real problem.
I would make the observation that along with the beautiful pool building, there are also a lot of other ugly, crummy buildings and sad, cage-like outdoor playing pitches and spaces. A case of a lack of aesthetic design vision over decades, as well as neglect , underfunding, and inevitable wear and tear. As with so many other places, like many schools, people have added on new facilities here and there, filling up the open spaces, and ending up with a miscellany of ugliness.
Now…. the other question. It’s a big one. here goes….
“Do we need to have a place that is dedicated solely to athletics and sport, or a place that also caters for wellbeing of the whole local population? Could we have a South London Sport and Leisure Centre” For example, with an all-season open air and under cover Lido as well as a formal pool?.
It occurs to me that the NSC has always been rather like a spaceship that happened to land in the middle of a lovely park. There is almost no synergy, of design or use, between the two. The NSC could have been plonked down almost anywhere, as it turns itself inward– albeit that the stadium experience is enhanced by the magnificent trees which form the backdrop.
Once upon a time this site was occupied by a pair of large pools with fountains, forming the bottom of the cascade system of the Crystal Palace gardens.
Later, maybe in the 1890’s , the ponds were filled in. The dip in which the NSC sits was converted to a cricket ground and running track. So it has a long sport provenance, after the Leisure provenance of the Crystal Palace .
Is it now possible to create a mix of Sport and Leisure?
It is great to read in Inside Croydon that there is some hope for the future of the NSC, but , seriously, to make the most of the potential of this unique historic and beautiful parkland location for the citizens of South London and adjacent areas of Surrey and kent, the NSC and the park in which it sits need to have a common Vision… a shared vision that integrates the design of the two, and ensures that we end up with a synergy of sport and Leisure…. which essentially means, Health, both Physical and Mental. Two sides of the same coin. All set in and respecting the superb landscape.
The real worry is that the decisions are going to be made by a narrow band of sports people, and exclude the undoubted potential for other uses that might not be high-level sport, but which the people of South London want and need. If people can get in the habt of going to the Park and seeing people running and playing sports, as they enjoy adjacent leisure facilities, it is more likely that they and their children will want to participate in the sport too.
It would be tragic just to replicate the NSC. It needs creative renewal, of purpose, uses, facility, buildings and landscape.
I would like to see the Pool and the best of the other NSC 1960’s structures and the 1970’s stadium restored, and the ugly dross removed.
Then, have a real conversation between sports people and the NSC design advisers and the Park Trust and their design advisers to come up with the shared design vision.
And let the public have their say, as part of the design development.
“Do we need to have a place that is dedicated solely to athletics and sport, or a place that also caters for wellbeing of the whole local population? Could we have a South London Sport and Leisure Centre”
And this is exactly what the venue had been doing – usefully if imperfectly – for the last 20 years. The problem always seemed to be that it was too expensive to run for the local role, and not busy enough for the regional/national one. So they got by with cutting corners on maintenance, but that was catching up with them long before the closure.
The other big problem the place has structurally is the pool design. It’s one big open air volume from poolside to sports courts. Even when energy was cheap in the 60s, this wasn’t ideal: comfortable poolside temperature is 5c or so higher than the ideal for indoor sports. In a time of eyewatering energy prices, the dash to Net Zero and a pampered public who’ll complain if things are more than a degree or two out of their preferred temperature.. go figure.
As listeners to the BBC / ITV news will have heard recently, a Devon Local authority is going into contract with a company that sets up computer data centres — the excess heat then is going to be used to heat the council’s lesure centre pool. What’s sauce for the Devon goose, could presumably be for the Crystal palace gander?
Another thought is that there is quite a lot of roof area, on the iconic pool building, and others in the NCC cluster, to have lot of solar panels. Only a structural engineering study would reveal whether the structure is strong enough, but it is a feasibility study worth doing.
These would contribute to supplyin the pool heating energy needs.
What would Paxman do, if he came back for a second bite of the cherry?
maybe , he would build a solar farm on the Italian terraces, or had a wind turbine.
OK, grafitti artists would rule out the solar farm there.
Shame, It must be sunny enough, on this South facing site.
But it must be windy enough to have a windmill.
Every little (kilowatt) helps.