BY TOBY PORTER
MAJOR ATHLETICS MEETINGS COULD SOON BE PULLED FROM CRYSTAL PALACE FOR GOOD
A world famous sports centre is set to lose its global standing as athletics chiefs are believed to have already decided to dump it from their roster.
Consultation on the future of the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre is still taking place – with former world middle distance record holder David Moorcroft set to meet users on January 29.
But UK Athletics (UKA) is believed to have decided Diamond League fixtures and other major international competitions will no longer be held there.
The venue was first used for Grand Prix meetings in 1953 and ran every year – and it hosted some of the biggest names in world sport for six decades including Usain Bolt, Michael Johnson and Paula Radcliffe.
But its status would be cripplingly undermined if UKA pulls out.
Athletics chiefs are believed to have pulled the plug on the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace, even though its stakeholders are currently being consulted on its future.
Insiders have confirmed the world famous arena will never again be used for global track and field events, as users campaign to save it.
The SE19 stadium’s historic prestige was based on large-scale televised events such as Diamond League or Grand Prix athletics meetings, which graced the venue since 1953 – until the completion of the Olympic Stadium in 2012.
Competitors at the annual event included Usain Bolt, Michael Johnson, Haile Gebrselassie, Steve Backley and Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbaeva, who broke the world record on three occasions there in 2004 and 2005.
But the South London Press understands UK Athletics (UKA), the sport’s governing body, does not believe Crystal Palace is fit to stage such events any more.
That would be a bitter blow for South London’s athletes currently training at the centre’s run-down indoor arena – many of them at international level.
Warrington-based Neil Allen Associates (NAA), a team of consultants, is set to deliver a verdict in the coming weeks on how it can overcome an annual £1million deficit at the centre.
High profile users are pleading with residents and sports fans to attend a crunch meeting at The Lodge, in Ledrington Road, at the centre of the park, on January 29, which is supposedly to discuss its fate.
Former GB world record middle distance runner and chief executive of UK Athletics (UKA), Dave Moorcroft, will talk about NAA’s findings at the meeting.
But campaigners are fuming that users were given only a few weeks, including Christmas, to respond to the consultation.
Crystal Palace is still a training base for sprinters, field competitors, swimmers and divers, and home to scores of other sports.
It hosted the South of England Championships and England Athletics Under-17 and Under-15 championships last summer.
One of the biggest events there is now the Harris Academy Sportsday, which attracts thousands of teenagers every summer – but it has also hosted visits by Billy Graham in 1984, Pope John Paul II in 1982 and a concert by Coldplay in 2005. Depeche Mode attracted 26,000 in 1993.
UKA believes the venue is hard to get to – but campaigners say it has the best transport links for any track in the country. It is currently served by 12 bus routes and a tram station and there are five train stations within a mile of the track.
John Powell, chairman of the alliance of users – Crystal Palace Sports Partnership – and a coach at the venue for the past 40-plus years, said: “Ill-informed decisions could be made which might affect athletes for generations to come.
End of road for once great venue?
“It has been allowed to rot and is in an incredible state of disrepair. It is now or never. If the indoor track goes, we are stuffed – coaching for sprinters, jumpers and throwers would have to end because you cannot do those outdoors in the winter.
“It is the most accessible track and field venue in England by a country mile. It sits in one of the most densely populated areas of the country. There is a massive need for a first class training venue in South London. If there is not major investment now, it will fall down the pecking order.
“But pounds, shillings and pence might end up ruling the roost and I fear the powers that be will take the easy option.
“We saw what happened with the Don Valley Stadium. The people in Sheffield lost a great venue and there’s a danger the same could happen here in London.
“The consultation is incredibly short – which makes me think it is a fait accompli and they are paying lip service to users.
“We have had so many threats to its future over the years that there’s a risk people will just shrug their shoulders this time. But this might be our last chance to save this iconic venue.
“It also seems senseless to spend £6million converting the Olympic Stadium from football to athletics every summer when Crystal Palace would cost much less to use.”
Former world diving champion Chris Snode, who runs a £5million diving school at the sports centre, fears there are plans to raise the floor of the diving pool from 4.8m to less than 4.5m. “All our staff would leave,” he said. “We could not use the 10m diving board.”
He also fears public swimming could take place while his school is training.
“Mixing young, inexperienced swimmers with divers can sometimes have lethal consequences, if someone strays into the wrong area,” he said.
“Our team is thriving and we have exciting plans, but you just never know what might happen.
“Athletics at Crystal Palace could be so good there, as long as there is an indoor track. If it is, then we would all benefit.”
The arena stages a senior and junior parkrun every week and is used by South London Harriers, Bromley Primary Schools Cross Country Association and the South of England Athletics Association, among others.
A 2007 masterplan costing £70million put elite sport at the centre of the scheme but was not implemented.
Bromley council’s current scheme includes a cafe and skate park, and a focus on improving community spaces and creating more fetes and festivals – although Southwark, Lambeth, Croydon and Lewisham boroughs all border the park.
A spokesman for the Mayor of London said: “The National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace is a much-loved sporting venue and an important community asset in South London, which the Mayor wants to ensure has a long-term future. City Hall officers have begun a review of the centre and will consult a range of sporting stakeholders over the next month. The public will then be consulted on more detailed options later in the year.”
UKA has said it will not comment while the consultation continues.
Councillor Peter Morgan, Executive Councillor for Renewal and Recreation, said: “We have been working to improve the park for some years now, with our regeneration plans in place since last year, and continuing to move forwards.
“Any plan for the National Sports Centre will be made by the GLA and the Mayor of London. Bromley council has been waiting for a decision for some time and we continue to wait.
“Hopefully this latest consultation will enable a decision to be taken in the near future. Anything the GLA does decide will need to complement and support our regeneration plans and hopefully this consultation will allow for clarity going forwards. Whatever the final outcome of all of this, we are clear that sport is an intrinsic part of the park’s heritage and remains highly important to its future. We will be considering the detail carefully before responding and we would encourage local people to make their views to the Mayor known too.”
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