Not-so-inspired decisions to import athletes

Great athletes are spurred on by people, not stadiums – and who needs local talent when you can ship it in?

Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie celebrates after winning the men's 10,000m at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Powered by automated translation

Here's a fun game for all the family. Pick a truly great athlete at random, then use your meticulous forensic research skills - or, Google - to discover if they grew up in the shadow of an Olympic stadium.

How about Haile Gebrselassie, the long-distance runner? Raised on a farm in the Arsi Province of Ethiopia, he ran 10km to school and back each day. Number of Olympic stadiums nearby: zero.

Usain Bolt, the sprinter? He grew up in a small town in Jamaica, called Sherwood Content, racing his pals on the street outside his parents' grocery store. Number of Olympic stadiums nearby: zero.

Jesse Owens? Born in Oakville, Alabama, he sought special permission to train before class at Fairmount Junior High School because he worked in a shoe repair shop every afternoon. Would you care to guess how many Olympic stadiums were in Oakville in the early 20th century, or have you spotted the pattern already?

Apparently, some people have not. As the post-2012 fate of the London Olympic stadium hangs in the balance, the buzzwords are "Legacy" and "Inspiration".

Two competing long-term plans for the stadium are proposed. West Ham United football club would like to make it their new home, while maintaining its viability as a top athletics venue by keeping the running track. Tottenham Hotspur, on the other hand, would bulldoze the stadium and build their new home on its site, without a running track. Instead they would fund an upgrade of the existing athletics stadium - a cosier 10,000-seater - a few miles away in Crystal Palace.

Final submissions to the Olympic Park Legacy Committee were made yesterday, amid dire warnings of what would happen if the young people of East London were robbed of their rightful inheritance: namely, the chance to be "inspired" into athletic endeavour by the daily sight of a functioning Olympic Stadium. And, presumably, the chance to invite 90,000 friends and relations to their school sports day.

Lamine Diack, the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations and a member of the International Olympic Committee, warned that Britain will never host another major tournament if it reneges on its bid pledge to provide an athletics legacy in East London.

"You can consider you are dead," warned the former Olympic long-jumper from Senegal (number of Olympic stadiums: zero). "You are finished."

But if Monsieur Diack believes there is any long-term use for a 90,000-seat athletics venue, he is - appropriately for a long-jumper - burying his head in the sand.

Crowds of that number will simply not turn out to watch athletics. A refurbished Crystal Palace would be far more suitable, and atmospheric. As for West Ham putting an atmosphere-sapping running track around a football pitch, they should ask Bayern Munich why they ditched their track. Or Espanyol, Vfb Stuttgart, Schalke, Hamburg, or Brighton.

The argument about inspiring young people is also hokum. Like Gebrselassie, Bolt and Owens, great athletes do not train because they happen to have a world-class facility on their doorstep.

They train because they love to run (or jump, or throw) and because they love to win. They are inspired not by huge (and empty) cathedrals of glass and steel but by people: from Olympic athletes, to club coaches, to parents.

But, most importantly, they are inspired by themselves, their fantasies of glory and the fire in their own bellies. They do not become great despite adversity, but because of it.

If there is a good facility nearby, of course they will use it. If there is one a fair way away, they will travel.

If there is none, they will make the best of whatever park or desert or scrubland is available. Who needs legacy, when you have legs?

Ironically, amid the urgent discussion of legacy and inspiration, nobody took much notice of another story about British athletics.

Team GB is planning to bolster its medal hopes at 2012 with a truckload of overseas ringers.

A reported 26 athletes from countries including Sweden, Norway, Kenya and Ukraine are under consideration to represent Britain, thanks to tenuous family connections or simply living there for three years.

So how will a talented young British athlete be inspired by the knowledge that their country will drop them like a hot javelin at the prospect of a more talented athlete from abroad? Perhaps they will just tell them to shut up … and look at that pretty stadium over there. One of Team GB's great medal hopes for 2012 is a young wrestler called Yana Stadnik. She had never set foot in the UK before 2007.

"People can say what they want," she said, "but when the country gets results and the flag of GB is in the air, what more do you need?"

Oh, I don't know, Yana. Maybe someone who knows the words to the national anthem? Still, she is very good at wrestling. So is her brother, Andriy, who won a silver medal at the 2008 Games. What a talented family! They must have grown up somewhere inspirational to become such great wrestlers.

Hmmm, let's see: Lvov, Ukraine. Number of Olympic Stadiums: zero.