Splendid new stadium in Birmingham is capable of staging European and world championships but where will this leave London?
The Müller Birmingham Diamond League was peppered with world-class performances but the biggest winner was the venue itself. For many people, Saturday was the first time they had visited the Alexander Stadium since its redevelopment and they were shocked – and in most cases delighted – by the scale of the transformation.
Barely any traces of the old Alexander Stadium remain. In some ways the new arena even feels more like the London Stadium with its grey and white structures and concourses.
Don’t take my word for it. “The stadium is really beautiful and I’m really proud of the way they’ve built it,” said Dina Asher-Smith. “It doesn’t even feel like the old Alexander Stadium. It almost feels like we’re in somewhere like Zurich at one of the fancy ones! So I think it’s going to be an amazing Commonwealth Games.”
With Asher-Smith winning the women’s 100m on Saturday in a mere 11.11 and the men’s race won by Aaron Brown of Canada in just 10.13, a theory escalated during the Diamond League that the track is slow. This follows reports in the media that Commonwealth Games organisers have installed a track that is not as expensive as those used at global championships such as the upcoming World Championships in Eugene.
The modest times were probably as much due to the cool and breezy weather, though. Certainly the athletes felt the track was fine and they loved the stadium generally.
Issy Boffey, winner of the 800m B race on Saturday, said: “The track and atmosphere is insane … the track is quick!”
Australian Olli Hoare, who finished third in the men’s 1500m, added that he felt the tracks in Eugene and Birmingham were the same and that the only difference on race day would be the weather.
David Weir, the wheelchair racing legend, said: “It was entirely different to when I raced here many moons ago. The stadium is amazing – it feels really new. It will bed in soon.”
In the field events the new arena accommodated some brilliant performances. Malaika Mihambo of Germany soared over seven metres in the women’s long jump, Kristjan Čeh went No.10 on the world all-time discus rankings and Olympic women’s discus champion Valarie Allman also threw a decent distance, saying: “It’s been a few years since I’ve been to Birmingham and I am in awe of the facility, the crowd, everything, it is incredible and I can’t wait to come back again.”
Not everything was perfect on Saturday, of course. There were grumbles from spectators being forced to use public transport or taxis to get to the arena because car parking in Perry Park was not allowed. There were also stories of cross wires and tension between the athletics governing bodies and the wider Birmingham 2022 body charged with overseeing the Games in July and August and who were, not surprisingly, using the Diamond League as a test event for the Games.
Perry Barr is not the most salubrious area either. The nearest railway station, Perry Barr, is one mile away and the city centre itself is four miles away.
Still, the splendid new stadium is worth making a minor trek to see. What’s more, it is certainly more impressive than the nearby Perry Barr greyhound stadium that Birchfield Harriers used as its home many years ago. Geographically, it is also nicely and centrally positioned on a national level.
So could the new Alexander Stadium be the centrepiece of a bid to stage the European or World Championships? Bizarrely, Britain has never staged the European event in its entire 92-year history, whereas when it comes to global events the nation has developed a reputation of being a safe pair of hands following London 2012 and London 2017.
Some believe that big-time athletics belongs in the British capital city. Yet Crystal Palace remains in desperate need of redevelopment (the recent ITV series The Games successfully papered over the cracks but staging a ‘proper athletics meeting’ is a different ball game), whereas negotiations are ongoing when it comes to terminating the sport’s long-term deal with the London Stadium in exchange for a multi-million pound pay off.
The latter is reminiscent of the £41m legacy funding ‘sweetener’ that UK Athletics was given after the Government reneged on its promise in 2001 to stage the IAAF World Championships at Lee Valley in north London. Certainly, if athletics walks away from the London Stadium in Stratford then it should be handsomely compensated with money that can be pumped into other areas of the sport.
READ MORE: Brits dazzle at Diamond League
Ultimately it depends on whether a venue outside London can regularly draw in big crowds for Diamond League and national championships every summer. Historically the sport has struggled to do this. Look at Don Valley, for instance, a large arena built for the 1991 World University Games but demolished in 2013 because, among other things, athletics events simply struggled to fill it.
Perhaps the answer is for Birmingham to become the home of an annual Diamond League, national championships and meetings like the English Schools Championships, with a street athletics event created for central London so at least the British capital enjoys a taste of the world’s No.1 sport for one or two days each summer.
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