‘It’ll be a Glastonbury but for sport and health’

Frank Dalleres
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De Vos says British Athletics’s future rests on making the Olympic Stadium a success
British Athletics chief Niels de Vos has grand plans for Olympic Stadium and they start now

BRITISH Athletics chief executive Niels de Vos is in no mood for understatement when discussing the importance of the Olympic Stadium to the future – the survival, even – of UK track and field.

His organisation will take up a month-long annual summer residence at the £600m jewel in the London 2012 crown next year, when West Ham United are also due to begin a long-term tenancy.

The burden of ensuring current and future Britain athletes benefit from the oft-cited legacy weighs heavily, he says. So does his duty to make the east London stadium a money-spinner.

“Without doubt, making a success of the Olympic Stadium is the single most important commercial thing facing the sport in the next few years,” De Vos told City A.M. “We’ve got an opportunity that no other athletics governing body in the world has got, and if we make the most of it it will see us as a well funded governing body, able to put a lot of money back into sport, for the next 50 years. If we don’t, then we’ll struggle.”

From 2016 and for the following 49 years the Olympic Stadium belongs to British Athletics for the entire month of July. De Vos’s task is to generate the maximum return, in every sense, from that contract.

The centrepiece is likely to remain the Anniversary Games, a three-day elite athletics meet staged on the birthday of the London 2012 Olympics which proved a 75-minute sell-out when first held in 2013.

It returns this year, after diverting to Glasgow last summer, and despite slower demand this time both the Friday and Saturday will be better attended than any other track event anywhere in the world in 2015.

De Vos bills it as “an Olympics in one day”, and hopes City professionals flock to the Friday evening session, comparing it to Paris rugby club Stade Francais’s luring of a after-work crowd. “They built it on: ‘We’ll do it on a Friday night, and everyone can just leave work and come and have a party, can-can girls and beers’. And it’s brilliant,” he adds.

He also has high hopes for the Diamond Relays, which offer teams of friends or colleagues – it is targeted at the corporate space – a 5 x 5km race that begins and ends on the historic London 2012 track. This year, its first, there is space for 800 teams, plus spectators who wish to cheer and enjoy hospitality, and takes place in one afternoon, but he hopes it will grow to span four or five days.

“I think that’s absolutely doable,” he says. “When you think a company like Barclays has 10,000 employees in Canary Wharf alone – they could take a night just themselves, in theory.”

How British Athletics fills the rest of its 31-day allocation at the stadium is, he says, uncertain: “That is a big question and I don’t for sure know the answer yet.”

An English schools finals is likely to be one element, while De Vos says he has had talks with key national sponsor Nike about “a 90-minute, midweek, ‘athletics-as-you’ve-never-seen-it-before’-type event”. Regular major events such as World Championships, which London has in 2017, and the European Championships, targeted for 2022, will underpin the month and, he hopes, nurture a sense of the Olympic Park hosting a festival of athletics throughout July every year.

“That’s the best way I can describe it: the British Athletics Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. It’s like Glastonbury but it’s about sport and running and kids and health and fitness. It sounds a bit nebulous but that’s what we’ve got to create.”

De Vos gushes about plans for the stadium, currently amid a refit that includes a new roof, and says he is “perfectly happy” with the amount of say British Athletics have had in the rebuilding. West Ham and football will be associated with the venue for most of the year, and while he praises the club’s cooperation, De Vos makes clear that “the thing can’t be painted claret and blue”.

“It’s very easy to change the look and feel. It’s things like seats that you can’t change,” he says. “They’ve got plans for the outside to have a digital wrap on it which, if it happens, will be absolutely brilliant. We’re relaxed about it, but I think it is very important and we are vital to keeping the stadium ‘honest’, in inverted commas, that this is the nation’s Olympic Stadium. It is not West Ham’s stadium.”

One area of the refit British Athletics has notably influenced is the original 2012 track, more specifically shielding it from heavy cranes so it is suitable for this year’s Anniversary Games.

So keen were they to retain the surface that they spent £1m – equivalent to their 2014 year-end profit – on 6ft-thick track protector, gambling short-term gain on creating the most attractive event possible.

“The Olympic Stadium’s not a cheap place to run. This year we had to pay a million quid to make sure we had the track,” De Vos says. “That’s £1m that might mean this year we actually don’t make any money out of the Anniversary Games.”

Of the Anniversary Games, he adds: “If you want to compete you’ve got to be doing things that have real impact on more than the number of people who come to the event. That’s something the Olympic Stadium offers us, to take us from maybe a B sport to an A sport.

“We need to make that stadium the centrepiece for athletics, not just for the Anniversary Games but for a whole variety of things, because we’ve got a 50-year tenancy there and we’ve got to fill it for a month every year. I’ve said it before but it needs to be our Wimbledon or our FA Cup final. It’s a massive opportunity but we’ve got to work hard to make the most of it.”

The Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games takes place at the former Olympic Stadium in London from 14-26 July. Tickets are available via britishathletics.org.uk Entries for the Diamond Relays are open until 1 June at www.runbritain.com

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