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London looks to keep afloat its legacy

Teenager Tom Daley will provide one of the enduring moments of the London Olympics if he wins diving gold...

The logo for the London 2012 Olympics. Picture: AFP

Teenager Tom Daley will provide one of the enduring moments of the London Olympics if he wins diving gold at the dazzling, new Aquatics Centre in a year's time. How long the venue itself endures is another question.

An operator for the Zaha Hadid-designed centre, one of London's most striking new venues, is still being sought amid fears that it may need significant subsidies to keep it open once the Olympics have left town.

Subsidies may also be necessary to prevent other venues on the Olympic Park falling derelict, a fate that befell many other host cities, most notably Athens in 2004.

However, public money will be hard to come by when Britain has embarked on severe spending cuts to tackle a record peacetime budget deficit.

Sporting legacy and the economic regeneration of a run-down part of east London were at the heart of London's bid in 2005 so it would be embarrassing for the city if any venues were allowed to fall into disrepair after next year's Games.

"If the commitment is to maintain a legacy for London then essentially you have to subsidise it," said Stefan Szymanski, professor of economics at Cass Business School.

Little remains from the last time the city hosted the Games in 1948. One of the last vestiges, a cinder athletics track from the old Wembley stadium, was removed to make way for the Paralympic hockey pitches on the new 2012 park.

It is not unusual in more recent times for "Keep Out" signs to go up quickly on Olympic sites once the Games are over, and for rubbish to collect in drained diving pools as weeds poke out between rows of dilapidated seats.

London, determined to avoid such a fate, has built some temporary venues while ditching others when the economic downturn kicked in. It also designed stadiums with flexibility in mind so they could be scaled down after the Games.

Earlier than any of its predecessors, it created an Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC) with the aim of attracting investment and preventing the park being a drain on the taxpayer in the future.

Critics, however, say its plans were not based on any evidence or realistic appraisal of what the likely use of the facilities would be.

ELITE FACILITY

Opinions vary on how many venues would need subsidies. One critic suggested all of them would, while another said one or two could be economically viable.

The athletes' village and media centre were likely to attract private money, but, without subsidies, the aquatics centre, velopark and handball arena were not, another suggested.

World champion Daley is impressed by the 269-million-pound Olympic Aquatics Centre. "I've never seen a diving pool like it," he said. "The...centre looks great inside and out and the dive boards are like waves coming out of the floor. Stepping on the dive boards has given me even more motivation to train and work hard towards getting back here in 2012."

Organisers, however, are already thinking about how to minimise costs after the Games next July and August. Seating at the centre will be reduced from 17,500 to 2,500 and the two 50-metre pools and diving pool will be used as an elite facility as well as by local residents and students.

Costs are still likely to stack up, however, especially because of the building's complicated, sting-ray shaped roof with its internal timber cladding. Revenue from paying locals may be lower than hoped because popular whirlpools and slides cannot be installed in the swooping building.

"Since it's an iconic structure, it may well be that it will be able to attract commercial income; on the other hand because it's such a large structure the economics will not be as favourable as, say, a typical local baths," Szymanski told Reuters.

London Olympic organisers made a promise early on that the 486-million-pound main stadium would be reduced from 80,000 seats to 25,000 so it could be used for athletics after the Games, a decision branded "economic nonsense" by Chris Gratton, professor of sport economics at Sheffield Hallam University.

"No athletics events other than the Olympics will generate enough demand to be economically viable," he told Reuters.

Such a stadium would require a tenant, such as a soccer club, with enough footfall to generate profit.

"They thought about the legacy, but they didn't plan for an economically viable legacy," said Emmanuel Hembert, principal at management consultants ATKearney.

"DOG'S BREAKFAST"

Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur sought a judicial review after they lost their bid to run the stadium. The club had wanted to rebuild it, removing the athletics track.

Preferred bidder status went to West Ham United who, with a reported 40-million-pound loan arranged by the local Newham Council, plan to change the site into a 60,000-seat stadium, retaining the track.

"In the end, the stadium ends up being bit of a dog's breakfast with various sorts of commitments and an element of public subsidy," Szymanski said.

The velopark is expected to have some element of elite sporting activity to help with funding. BMX, road cycling circuits and mountain bike tracks will help to make it commercially viable.

Some venues, such as the copper-clad, 44-million-pound handball arena, would have to be used for other events, such as concerts, to make money, experts said. However, as London's third-largest such venue it would face stiff competition from the O2 centre, Wembley Arena and the Royal Albert Hall.

Szymanski said the overall legacy problems were rooted in 2005, regardless of the OPLC's comparatively early start.

"If you are going to be serious about legacy then you have to empower someone to take responsibility and to fight for the legacy from day one, rather than from two-thirds of the way through the construction project," he said.

London Assembly member Dee Doocey said politicians were terrified of investing more money in the park because of fear of sensational headlines suggesting costs were out of control.

"I am hoping that at the end of the Olympics, ministers and governments, whoever is in power, might take a more realistic view because unless they do it's just not going to work, we're not going to have a legacy of community use," she said.

An OPLC spokeswoman said commercial negotiations were still going on, and said the body's aim was for commercially sustainable venues that were accessible to everyone.

"We think the legacy is in great shape, and we will have operators for all venues and the park estate management in place before the Games begin," she added.

Timeline

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