Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Debate over 2012 legacy

Sir Clive Woodward's involvement in London 2012 continues to attract suspicion from within Olympic governing bodies despite the peace deal between UK Sport and the British Olympic Association announced this month.
Athletics and cycling both used a hearing of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport select committee in parliament yesterday to express doubts about what the Rugby World Cup-winning coach could bring to their sports that they did not already have. Woodward has developed a £150,000-a-year multi-coach training programme for athletes but the major sports appear to require some convincing of its worth.
"At this time we don't see anything that he has to offer cycling that we are not already getting from UK Sport, and UK Sport would be in serious difficulties if he could offer anything they are not," said Chris Boardman, the former Olympic cycling champion.
The UK Athletics chairman, Ed Warner, was also sceptical. "There are those who would say there are no new ideas in the Woodward programme," he said. "So far he has had no impact on athletics but he might do, provided that we can dictate what we can use to improve our chances. There has been a risk that we get caught up in the political backlash of two organisations [UK Sport and the BOA] locking horns over their rival programmes."

Debate over 2012 legacy
The role of Sport England in delivering the sporting legacy of the 2012 Olympic Games remains a major concern to MPs and sports' governing bodies. The question was repeatedly raised at yesterday's select committee hearing, with all the sports agreeing that Sport England should drive the legacy commitment but unclear as to its plans.

The quango is currently in negotiations with the government over its funding package from 2009 to 2011 but it remains to be seen whether its primary role going forward will be mass participation to encourage a health and fitness agenda or promoting sport.

Fundraising doubts
Serious concerns remain at UK Sport about how the government will raise £100m from the private sector to complete its total pre-London 2012 funding package of £600m. UK Sport's chair, Sue Campbell, told the select committee yesterday that she could not confidently predict that the money would be raised.

The DCMS is in the process of hiring an agency to help raise the cash but sponsorship has already been ruled out as an option.

England look to first base
England have narrowed their search for potential Euro 2008 base camps down to two or three options should they qualify for the tournament by avoiding defeat against Croatia at Wembley tonight.

The favoured option is understood to be a base in Switzerland close to one of the major cities, with a site on Lac Leman, near Geneva, among the possibilities.

With two of the Euro 2008 groups playing all their matches in Austria, however, they will wait until the draw on December 2 before allowing England's head coach, Steve McClaren, to have the final say.

Refreshingly the Football Association has no intention of repeating the World Cup 2006 mistake of selecting a remote base that cuts the players off from media, supporters and, in some cases, reality.

Dein under fire
The former Arsenal vice chairman David Dein, below, clashed with Andy Walsh, chairman of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association, at yesterday's Future of Football conference in London over the issue of supporter representation on club boards.

Dein, who is fronting the Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov's attempts to take control of Arsenal, said he had never met a board member who was not a fan.

Walsh also spoke out against foreign ownership but found no one in the audience of financiers and football club employees to support his view.

The flood of foreign cash into the English game shows no sign of slowing, meanwhile, with the Dubai International Capital group, which tried and failed to buy Liverpool, understood to be still eyeing investment opportunities in the Premier League.

Coincidental clash
It was curious timing yesterday for the launch of the Legacy Trust, a new charitable body whose task is to fund "the sporting and cultural legacy of the 2012 Olympics".

Some 19 months after Tessa Jowell first announced it, the official launch event started just as officials from UK Sport and leading governing bodies were being grilled in parliament on issues including the sporting legacy of London 2012.

A spokeswoman for the DCMS said the clash was entirely coincidental.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

We love volleyball and want to improve

The quest for homegrown glory at the 2012 Olympics is taking British sport to the strangest of places — for example, the foot of the Dutch professional volleyball league.

There you will find, occupying basement position in the table, Club Martinus — unremarkable except for the fact that the long established Amsterdam outfit is, in fact, the British national team.

As a result of an arrangement both innovative and curious, UK Sport has 'borrowed' the financially stricken Martinus for a season and filled its first team with the players they are developing for the London Games.

The club's fans, in a country where volleyball enjoys considerable popularity, have adopted Britain and need to be fairly tolerant, too, because after seven matches of the season Martinus, aka GB, are without a win.

And so it was that on Saturday night the journey to London 2012 took them via an airy sports hall besides the ring road of the northern city of Groningen.

There they were playing fourthplaced Lycurgus and it was another cuffing for the young British team, their inexperience showing in unforced errors at crucial times in a 25-20, 25-16, 25-20 defeat. With only 150 spectators braving a cold night, this is hardly the glamour end of European sport. The familiar outcome tested the patience of head coach Harry Brokking, 52, who used to run the Dutch national team. ' I t's frustrating but to be expected, given the level at which they started. Inevitably, they are behind skills-wise, but this is a long-term project and they are making progress,' he said.

"It's not realistic for them to be gold medal candidates in London but they can definitely be competitive. They just need to do what they do in practice under pressure and this is the place to learn. It can't be done in England."

When Martinus lost their main sponsor this year, Brokking brokered a deal for GB to step in until April; a similar experiment is being tried with the nascent British handball team in Denmark.

The British squad of 12 volleyballers, a mix of amateurs and players with some professional experience around Europe, now live and train just outside Amsterdam.

That they have a foreign coach is hardly surprising. Volleyball is one of the world's biggest participation sports but, despite being invented by Welshman William Morgan in the late 19th century, it has barely registered a blip on the mainstream British radar. In fact, the biggest boost for the sport in the UK has been the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, especially Poland, where it is second only to football. Polish teams in London (Plumbers United?) are overflowing.

Brokking is trying to develop the likes of 21-year-old Ben Pipes from Hull. He is standing in for skipper Chris Porter, who is awaiting knee surgery — the game is about as easy on the knees as carpetfitting.

Pipes is the poster boy for British volleyball and after spending two seasons as a pro in Sweden and Spain, is sufficiently rated to be eyed by clubs in the Italian league, Europe's most prestigious, He is 6ft 8in — which passes for average in volleyball — and led gallantly on Saturday night. But it was not enough to stop another reverse against equally committed and vocal opponents in what, to outsiders, is a surprisingly aggressive sport.

"Every single team desperately wants to beat us,' he said. 'We are coming into their league and are a national team so every match we play seems to be like a cup final — but that's great for us because we are experiencing such intense competition.

"I won't pretend that losing every week has been fun. It's devastating but every Monday is the start of the new week and we have to drag ourselves up and look ahead to the next match.

"Our players are mostly aged between 20 and 26. It's all geared towards 2012, so by then we should have a good nucleus fed by other players."

The results are certainly not for want of trying and despite the squad's proximity to Amsterdam there is little time to experience the city's varied delights. Undergoing a rigorous routine of six hours training per day, they live off their UK Sport funding grants and occupy flats generally used by workers at the nearby airport.

"We have all bought into it because we love volleyball and want to improve. People at Martinus have been very welcoming," said Pipes.

"There's very little going out. We don't have much money and the front room of one of the flats is like a hair salon because we cut each other's hair. It's probably a bit like being a student — except without the fun bit."

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Rising Olympic costs slammed as catastrophic

· Entire £2.7bn contingency fund is to be used up
· Final London 2012 bill will be three times bid figure

The most pessimistic estimates of the final bill for the London 2012 Olympics were vindicated yesterday when the most senior civil servant involved on the project admitted that the entire £2.7bn contingency fund for the project would probably be spent.
The admission to MPs by Jonathan Stephens, permanent secretary to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, contradicts repeated assertions from government and the Olympic Delivery Authority that costs had not risen in real terms since the bid was submitted in 2004.

The admission means the final cost is likely to be at least £9.3bn, more than double the figure given in London's bid book, a disparity which the Labour MP Don Touhig described as "the most catastrophic piece of financial mismanagement in the history of the world".
Until yesterday the ODA and DCMS had insisted that the intention was not to spend the contingency money but, at a hearing of the public accounts committee at Westminster yesterday, Stephens conceded that it might all be spent.

"The only safe assumption is to expect all of it to be spent," he said. "Obviously we are all working to ensure that less is spent but on a project of this size we might expect risks will materialise, and as they do contingency will be transferred to the ODA. We are trying to advance the timetable to deal with cost pressures but it is realistic to expect a significant amount, if not all, of the contingency to be spent."

The admission will fuel suspicions that the original budget was set deliberately low to attract cabinet approval for a bid and undermines repeated assertions from the ODA that costs have not risen.

The original budget, compiled in 2004, put construction costs at £2.375bn, with a further £1bn set aside for regeneration costs and another £700m coming from the private sector. In March this year the Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, told parliament that the budget had risen to £9.3bn, an increase of more than £5bn, of which almost half was the "potential additional programme contingency".

Until now the Olympic officials have insisted that the new construction budget was broadly comparable to the 2004 figures once VAT and compound inflation to 2012 prices was taken into account. The likelihood that all contingency will be used explodes that argument.

Stephen's evidence came during an often heated appearance in front of the influential Commons committee, which was questioning Olympic officials for the first time since the revised budget was published.

Stephens and David Higgins, the ODA chief executive, came under sustained criticism for the disparity between the two budgets, with Edward Leigh, the Conservative chairman, telling them that he had little confidence in their ability to control costs as the Games approached.

"What worries me is that judging by your record so far I have no confidence in your ability to plan ahead. As the Games approach you are going to have to throw money at it," he said.

Stephens denied that this was the case. Asked repeatedly why the original budget was so inaccurate and had even failed to take into account government guidelines on budgeting for major projects, he said that inaccuracies were inevitable in a project of this scale and complexity, that the original budget had been signed off across government and had been based on expert independent advice.

The committee seized on an increase in management costs from £16m to £570m between the two bids, with the Conservative David Curry describing it as "more Harry Potter than Accountancy Age".

A reduction in the budgeted private-sector contribution from £738m to £165m also drew criticism: "It is staggering that an accounting officer could include an estimate for £738m which he has been warned is not based on any sort of accurate information. It is an appalling abrogation of your responsibilities as an accounting officer," said Leigh.

Higgins insisted the ODA was working to control costs, rejecting the charge from Austin Mitchell that "the construction industry has you by the short Olympic rings". At the end of the session Leigh warned Stephens and Higgins that they could expect a highly critical report from the committee.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

MPs seek answers over 2012 costs

London 2012 organisers will face another round of searching questions over their spiralling budget when they appear before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee today.
For the first time since the Olympics Minister, Tessa Jowell, announced in March that the funding provision for the project had leapt to £9.3 billion from £2.375bn at the time of the bid in 2005, MPs will get the chance to grill the government and the Olympic Delivery Authority on the rising costs.

The hearing comes at a time when ministers and London 2012 bosses are under renewed pressure over the mega-project's finances.

Last month the British Olympic Association chairman Lord Colin Moynihan broke ranks to criticise the government for a lack of financial transparency on the budget. As a member of the Olympic board, Moynihan's comments caused considerable unease.

A few days later, Jowell conceded that the final "baseline" budget for the Games was still being worked out – an admission described by opposition politicians as "startling".

Against this backdrop, this afternoon's hearing is likely to be uncomfortable for the ODA chief executive, David Higgins, and Jonathan Stephens, permanent secretary at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and accounting officer for the project.

Committee members will want to know why, eight months after Jowell announced the budget, there seems to be so little detail.

They will ask exactly what has been spent so far and how much of the £2.7bn of contingency set aside for the project has been allocated.

Committee chairman Edward Leigh said: "There's no possible reason for hiding anything in the budget. The more we shine the spotlight on these people, the more we will get down to the nitty gritty of these figures."

Organisers and ministers argue that they cannot be too open because much of the information is financially sensitive.

On the accusation that costs are spiralling out of control from 2005 forecasts, they say a direct comparison is impossible. "It's like comparing apples with pears," said a DCMS spokesman yesterday. But that begs the question why more detailed analysis was not done at bidding time. And if the sums were wrong then, what's to say the £9.3bn announced by Jowell in March is more reliable?

With 4½ years to go until the start of the Games, organisers know they need to get to grips with the debate on costs.

The unpalatable truth is that the final bill is unlikely to be known until some time after the Games are over.

How the costs rose

July 2005* July 2012
Total funding package £2.375bn £9.3bn

Total cost of sports
venues / core costs
of Olympics £573.1m £3.08bn***

Regeneration £1.044bn £1.67bn

Main stadium £281m £496m

Aquatics centre £73.1m £150m**

*Costs submitted at time of bid in 2005 but worked out, according to International Olympic Committee rules, on the basis of 2004 prices.
**Final approved forecast for the aquatics centre has not been announced but is estimated to be somewhere between £150m and £200m
***While the 2005 figure is specifically for the Olympic venues, the 2012 number includes all associated costs in redeveloping the main Olympic park in Stratford. The actual venue costs will not be known for some time.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Poll says more than three-quarters back 2012 Olympics in London

A new nationwide survey suggests 76 per cent of people are pleased London is staging the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in 2012 - with even higher backing among younger people and in London, southern England and Northern Ireland.

The poll, with more than 2,000 people questioned by the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB), also shows widespread optimism that the Games will have a positive effect on London and the whole country and high levels of confidence that the UK will stage successful Games in 2012.

Strongest support for the Games came from 25 to 34 year olds, with 90 per cent saying they were pleased London is staging the Games, in Northern Ireland (88 per cent), in London (82 per cent), among 35 to 44 year olds (82 per cent), among 15 to 24 year olds (81 per cent) and in southern England, where backing was 80 per cent.

Even where support was lowest, more than six out of ten were pleased about London hosting the Games. Among those aged 65 and older backing was put at 66 per cent, with 67 per cent of 55 to 64 year olds pleased, 69 per cent in Scotland and 70 per cent in the Midlands.

Among other findings, the polling suggests:
* 81 per cent think 2012 will have a positive effect on London and 70 per cent on the country as a whole.
* 76 per cent are confident the UK will host successful Games.
* 63 per cent think the legacy from 2012 should be wider than just sport.

But only 39 per cent know "a lot" or "a little" about plans for the 2012 Games, with 41 per cent knowing "not very much" and the remaining one fifth nothing. However in London the figure rises to 64 per cent.

Olympic Minister Tessa Jowell welcomed the poll's findings:
"More than two years after we won the Games, over three-quarters of those questioned remain enthusiastic about the world's top event coming to London - a real sign of a positive attitude which will inspire us all to deliver the maximum benefits for the whole country, as well as staging a terrific festival of sport."

But she added:
"We must not get complacent. We don't have a day to waste and it is up to all of us - not just Government - to act to maximise the benefits. The polling shows that many people still have to switch on to 2012. When they do, I am confident support will reach even higher levels."

The survey was carried out to aid work developing the Government's 'Our Promise for 2012' before the publication of its Legacy Action Plan in the next few months.

More than two-thirds of those surveyed rated inspiring young people to take part in local volunteering, cultural and physical activity as the most important of the five promises. The second most popular, backed by just over 50 per cent, was demonstrating that the UK is a creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, visit or do business in.

Tessa Jowell said:
"We wanted to know what the people's priorities were for 2012 to make sure that the Games and our ambitions for an enduring legacy were in accord - and they are. There is wide awareness - and even greater support - for our drive to create jobs, increase participation in sport, provide new facilities and promote the UK as a great place to visit - with a special focus on young people.

"We will now use this research to make sure we focus our energies and attention on the things that people think matter most, and the activities that we know they will respond to and get involved with from now to 2012 and beyond."

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Blaze breaks out in London near 2012 Olympic venue

The London Fire Brigade has reported a huge blaze has broken out in east London near the site where the main stadium for the 2012 Olympics will be constructed.

Arounf 40 firefighters were called to the blaze at around midday at Waterden Road, Stratford.

There are no reports of any casualties and the Metropolitan police has said it is continuing its investigations into the incident.

"We have nothing to suggest that this anything other than a fire at the moment," said a police spokesman said to reporters.

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Thursday, November 8, 2007

London 2012 Olympic Games stadium design unveiled

London's Olympic organizers unveiled the design of the main stadium for the 2012 Games on Wednesday, billed as a hi-tech arena which will serve the British capital for generations afterwards.

The 496 million pound (710 million euro, 1.04 billion US dollar) structure, in the form of a sunken bowl with a wraparound fabric covering and a removable roof, will dominate the centre of the Olympic Park in east London.

The 80,000-seat stadium will host the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games as well as key track and field events. Organizers hailed the unveiling of the plans as a "milestone" on the road to the London Olympics.

"In unveiling today's images I want that to be the unveiling of a journey for the next five years," said former Olympic champion Sebastian Coe, head of the London 2012 organizing committee, at a press conference.

"The a stadium for a completely new era."

Initial reaction to the blueprint was positive. The London Evening Standard newspaper called it a "striking design," while London mayor Ken Livingstone said it would be a "beacon for the capital."

While the stadium's initial use will be for the 2012 Games, organizers also want to make sure it is still used by local people in the years afterwards.

When the Games are over the stadium's high-tech design allows for it to be reduced to a 25,000-seat arena, to be used by the local community and for other major sporting events.

English Premier League football side West Ham United were mooted as possible future tenants for the new stadium but many teams dislike playing in an athletics stadium because the track distances them from spectators.

Livingstone, though, said that football clubs may have to look elsewhere.

"We made a commitment that there would be a permanent athletics facility and we have honoured that commitment," he said.

Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell said: "This is a very important Olympic milestone and this stadium is focused very much on legacy and sustainability.

"Once the Games are over, this will then be translated into a stadium that will not only host grand prix athletics events and other national sport events but will also serve the communities of the boroughs."

With post-Olympic use in mind, the upper parts of the structure are designed to be removed, including a roof which will provide protection from the weather for two-thirds of the seats inside.

A wraparound fabric curtain, which will encircle the stadium in its Olympic version, will also come off afterwards, with plans for the material to be made into bags and other souvenir goods to remember the Games.

The London Olympics are helping to revive a deprived part of the city, and the permanent stadium will be a key part of that. "It's a stadium that will be inspiring, it will be a stadium that will have a lasting legacy," said Coe.

Critics have highlighted the ballooning budget since London won with its bid for the 2012 Olympics in Singapore in July 2005. The stadium price tag was put at 280 million pounds at that time.

John Armitt, chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority, said: "Nearly 500 million pounds is a lot of money in anyone's terms but it is the budget and we are determined to work within that."

"If there is a requirement for any extra, we have a contingency within the scheme covering this as a whole and we will use some of that, but that is not the plan."

Building work is due to start next April or May, three months ahead of schedule, and should be completed in 2011 to allow test events to be held in the stadium before the Games themselves.

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