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West Ham Ready to Inherit Olympic Stadium

By Jeremy Inson -- September 21, 2012 9:56 AM EDT

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With the Olympic and Paralympic Games now on their next four-year cycle towards Rio de Janeiro, it will fairly soon be decision time for London as to what to do with the centrepiece of their widely lauded Games - the Olympic Stadium.

London Mayor Boris Johnson is scheduled to make an announcement in October of which of the four tender bids for the stadium's leasehold has been successful and with it end a debate that has pretty much dominated ever since London won the right to host the Games in July 2005.

Premiership football side West Ham United are the leading candidates to be awarded the £430million ($696million) arena, but they face a challenge for the long-term leasehold from another side from East London - third tier Leyton Orient, Formula One and the UCFB College of Football Business. If West Ham are awarded the Stadium they will have just under two years to ready it for the grand re-opening in 2014.

With the Stadium a trip of just under four miles from West Ham's current home Upton Park and with it being in the same London borough, Newham, the Hammers are widely regarded as the best bet to provide a lucrative long-term tennant to the venue. More crucially, they have the backing of a number of high-profile political and sport figures.

At the end of 2011 a bid for the freehold of the Stadium was scrapped after it has ended in legal wrangling between West Ham and another Premiership side Tottenham Hotspur. With it came the decision to only offer a long-term lease-hold and to keep the ownership in the public domain.

At the heart of their bid and in contrast to Tottenham's offer is the decision by the club to keep the running track. With the previous bid process whether or not to keep the track was at the heart of the debate. West Ham said yes, Tottenham said no, but offered to pay for redevelopments to the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace in South London. That brought out cries of derision, most notably from the Organising Committee (LOCOG) chairman Lord Sebastian Coe who had made the promise that the Games would finally provide a world class athletics venue in Britain's capital and was reflected when track and field's worldwide ruling body - the International Association of Athletics Federations - awarded the city the 2017 World Championships.

Having already seen London let the 2005 World Championships slip through their fingers to worldwide dismay, Lord Coe was well aware that any decision to rip up the running track would appear to be a huge betrayal of the faith they were awarded when they won the Games in 2005 and go back on everything the bid talked about over the legacy of the Games. If he was in any doubt, he was duly reminded by IAAF president Lamine Diack, who pointed out that London, England or Great Britain would not be trusted with organising any major sports event for a generation if they accepted Tottenham's bid.

Of course this whole debate over whether to keep the track or not would be redundant if LOCOG and the Olympic Development Authority (ODA), who oversaw the design and construction of the Stadium, had opted to put in retractable seats. Quite why they didn't for a Stadium opened in 2012 remains a mystery, especially as they are a feature of Paris' Stade de France (opened 1998) and Sydney's own Olympic Stadium (opened 1999), though the respective bottom line is the likeliest answer.

Watching football from across a running track is anathema to fans in the UK who have grown up accustomed to stands tight to the pitch which allow them an intimacy with their team and Upton Park was traditionally one of the most intimate until redevelopment in recent years. As such West Ham are now talking about installing retractable seating as part of the Stadium's post-Olympic redevelopment.

The Hammers appear to have a compelling case. They are local, have agreed to allow the Stadium to be widely used for other events that London has planned and most importantly, with the team back in England's top flight, are the likeliest to bring large numbers into the venue on a regular basis. Over the next two years the Stadium's top tier will be removed and the capacity will be scaled back to about 55,000 from the current 80,000. West Ham's owners say they can fill that number of seats on a regular basis and have already promised ticket price freezes and ticket deals in a bid to do so.

Finding a long-term solution to an Olympic Stadium is one of the hardest task an Organising Committee faces. Atlanta 1996's was harsh and widely criticised at the time, but ultimately they have been proved correct with Turner Field proving a popular venue for the Atlanta Braves baseball team. Sydney's Stadium Australia is used for a variety of football codes - soccer, rugby league and union and Australian Rules, but its location outside the city makes it a less than popular venue. Then there is Athens, which left its own stadium untouched and is a venue for local football favourites Panathinaikos, who rattle around in it every other weekend, with the lower tier practically empty because the sight-lines across the running track are atrocious.

No one in the UK wanted a repeat of the 2002 Commonwealth Games situation where a redeveloped stadium with no provision for athletics was handed over for free to Manchester City after it had been redeveloped at the end of the Games. As such allowing a local club such as West Ham, who have promised to let the Stadium be used for track and field in the summer, is probably the best way of ensuring that thousands more enjoy London's Olympic Stadium even though the five-ring circus is no longer in town.

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