Ed Warner Legacy Corporation Member Insights Olympics

Member Insights: London Should Gift Tokyo The 2020 Anniversary Games In Show Of Unity, Says Former UK Athletics Chair

April 1, 2020

A dispute is currently raging as to who should get the Olympic Stadium if West Ham United are in need of it to culminate the Premier League season during the summer, however a solution beneficial to all could be found, says Ed Warner, former UK Athletics Chairman.

The sporting calendar is in turmoil. But Tokyo 2020 being slipped back a year and UEFA’s similar postponement of its Euros at least provides a framework for other global events to be rescheduled. What might remain of this summer must now be utilised to best effect by financially challenged governing bodies.

The remnant of England’s Premier League football is garnering most public attention. Within this conundrum, a spat is festering between West Ham United and UK Athletics about use of the London Stadium. This risks becoming unseemly. Now is the time for collaboration and radical thinking. An answer to their tussle over the venue can and must be found. My answer? Stage this year’s Anniversary Games in the city of Tokyo as a gift from London to sports fans around the world.

The growing dispute between West Ham and UKA lies in their respective tenancy agreements with the London Stadium’s landlord, the Mayor’s Legacy Corporation, and the absurdly inefficient design of the retractable spectator seating which allows the arena to be configured for both football and athletics. I chaired UKA for a decade until 2017 and am familiar with both the Stadium’s idiosyncrasies, and the history of tensions between its landlord and tenants.

I’m all for using the media to fight a sporting cause in normal times, but right now this isn’t a good look for either body.

UKA has exclusive use of the Stadium for a few weeks every summer. No-one ever envisaged that the Football Association would have to waive its stipulation that the domestic football season must end on 1 June each year. West Ham is now asserting its lease gives it primacy during this extended football season. UKA’s new CEO, Joanna Coates, has publicly stated it “doesn’t seen wholly fair that football has carte blanche” and made an early call for “some compensation”. West Ham have replied by assuring its fans that “the London Stadium will be configured for football matches and not inappropriately set up for an athletics meeting or concert.”

I’m all for using the media to fight a sporting cause in normal times, but right now this isn’t a good look for either body.

The flagship British athletics meeting of the year, the Anniversary Games, is planned for 4 and 5 July. UKA’s contractual window of use of the London Stadium extends to end July. Meanwhile the Premier League is reported to be looking at plans which might involve the 2019/20 season running to the end of July or possibly even beyond. All of which might be manageable if the Stadium’s seats could be moved swiftly at the flick of a switch. But an ill-advised cost-saving exercise when it was revamped after the London 2012 Games means that reconfiguring the seating takes around two weeks. This is a hugely labour-intensive exercise reported to cost up to a staggering £8 million a time.

Thirteen weeks out from the Anniversary Games we are in the middle of the huge COVID 19 uncertainty. The current social distancing guidelines militate against a non-essential project like the Stadium seat move. There must already be close to no chance that the London Stadium will be ready to host elite athletics in front of a big crowd. Football behind closed doors, however, might be a different proposition.

Now then is the time for creativity. UKA, with the backing of the London Mayor and DCMS, should offer the hosting rights for this year’s Anniversary Games to Tokyo, free of charge. The Japanese capital would not be constrained by UKA’s London Stadium calendar but could work with World Athletics to find a window in late summer or early autumn to stage a joyous two-day celebration of world class athletics once, hopefully, the global pandemic has abated. Tokyo should be encouraged to revert to the Anniversary Games’ original structure and add a third day of elite Para athletics, so creating the tastiest of appetisers for both next year’s Olympics and Paralympics.

Seb Coe, Chairman of the Diamond League as well as President of World Athletics, is perfectly empowered to find a slot in a truncated 2020 athletics season for this showpiece event. Doubtless also he’d recognise its value to both Tokyo and track and field globally.

What of the economics? Surely the BBC, UKA’s broadcast partner, would be delighted with an event likely to pull in an audience maybe five or ten times its usual two million viewers. Müller, the headline commercial partner, would receive unimagined global exposure.

For Tokyo, it gets a two- or three- day Diamond League event in its shiny new National Stadium. Has there ever been a better test event for an Olympic venue?

The Legacy Corporation would save the exorbitant costs of moving the London Stadium’s seats – more than enough to make a payment equal to the average profit UKA made from the event in recent years. This would shore up the governing body’s fragile finances and remove the virus uncertainty hanging over it. Joanna Coates can then pause for breath in her brand-new job, ensure the delivery of a fantastic Diamond League meeting in Gateshead on 15 August, and plan an overdue revamp of the Anniversary Games for when they return to London next summer.

The Mayor’s remaining saving – perhaps as much as £5 million – could be committed to a fighting fund for community sports clubs in Newham and the other London Olympic boroughs to help them weather the effects of the pandemic. This would prove a vital lifeline for many. West Ham, given a clear run at completing their season at home, should be encouraged to top up this fighting fund, or instead commit additional resources to the excellent community work already undertaken by the club’s charitable foundation.

And for Tokyo, it gets a two- or three- day Diamond League event in its shiny new National Stadium, which would prove the hottest ticket anywhere in the world this year, and a guaranteed money-spinner. Has there ever been a better test event for an Olympic venue?

What’s then to stop this happening? Mayor Sadiq Khan will have been looking forward to his two days of Major League Baseball in June in the London Stadium. But the MLB season remains suspended and neither the St. Louis Cardinals nor the Chicago Cubs are likely to want to cross the Atlantic for this double-header even once it recommences. Which only leaves a gig headlined by Green Day towards the end of that month. Not the greatest obstacle surely, if everyone insists that the lawyers take a back seat and is prepared to work in a new spirit of co-operation.

Ed Warner was Chair of UK Athletics from 2007 to 2017 and is now Chair-Designate of GB Wheelchair Rugby.

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Ed Warner Legacy Corporation Member Insights Olympics