Building from the rubble after failure to support legacy of London Olympics

Destruction of the Don Valley Stadium has threatened to ruin the future of athletics in Sheffield. Nick Westby examines its effect.

Demolition begins on the Don Valley Stadium
Demolition begins on the Don Valley Stadium

A LITTLE over 12 months after Jessica Ennis strode to the top step of the podium at London 2012, the stadium where she fell in love with athletics and where her enormous potential was harnessed, was destroyed.

With every brick that was bulldozed, every bit of metal contorted on the concrete bowl that was Don Valley Stadium, a piece of the legacy and the future of athletics in Sheffield was stripped away.

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The decision by Sheffield City Council to tear down the stadium for cost-cutting measures was greeted with bewilderment and anger.

How could a decision be taken less than a year after the purpose of the stadium had yielded its greatest reward?

Where would golden girl Jess train now? Where would the city find the next Ennis-Hill?

One man who was as vocal as anyone in lobbying the council to change their mind, was Toni Minichiello. As well as being the now Ennis-Hill’s coach, and a man highly thought of in British Athletics circles despite not always conforming to protocol, Minichiello is also a man with a deep love for athletics, his city, and the future relationship between the two.

His initial anger has become pragmatism, as he knows the best course of action is to find a way to work around the problem that losing a regular, vital training base like Don Valley has presented.

Woodburn Road, the disused alternative the council offered, is two years from completion and in the winter months since moving out of Don Valley, not somewhere he has had to take his star pupil too often.

So he has had to adapt.

“It’s not had a huge effect because at this time of year we tend to run in the park and on grass surfaces,” explained Minichiello.

“A considerable amount is also done indoors at the English Institute of Sport.

“We’re using Woodburn Road a little bit, there’s still a lot of work to be done on it and I’m confident Sheffield Hallam University will get the necessary done, but it’s a very long process, it’s not going to be an instant turnaround.

“It’s never going to be to the standard of a Don Valley Stadium so, from that perspective, it’s a bit sad. I don’t believe the facility will meet those kind of needs for maybe another two years.

“The difficulty with Woodburn Road is the mundane things like changing rooms, toilets, etcetera; they are the things that are missing.

“But on the whole you make do and mend, you get on and work as best you can. I’ve altered my group’s training so that they’re in the park more often, so, hopefully, we’ll avoid injuries by not working too often on hard surfaces.”

Minichiello is also making his visits to the athletics facilities at Leeds Metropolitan University more frequent.

Ennis-Hill already has two sessions a week under javelin coach Mick Hill at Leeds Met, and Minichiello has added other sessions into those visits. But the varied programme of natural hills, indoor surfaces and exposed running tracks has its pitfalls.

“Leeds can be very windy, as can Woodburn Road, whereas Don Valley was built into a bowl so you were pretty much sheltered from the elements,” continued Minichiello.

“That means the quality of work you could do at Don Valley was considerably more than what you can do at Woodburn Road.

“When it’s raining or really cold, you’d do a run and then go indoors to get warm and recover, and then step back outside and work, and back into cover.

“You can’t do that at Woodburn Road.

“They are little things, some would call them luxuries, I would call them necessities, because it’s about the quality of work you do.

“But, unfortunately, it’s stuff that’s not often seen by people who have operated at the levels Jess has to work at. It’s about the quality of work when your Jess’s age, not the volume.”

The bigger picture concerning the destruction of Don Valley was what effect it had on interest in athletics in the city.

Encouragingly, uptake in the sport has trebled, with 700 local kids signed up to athletics academies run by Sheffield International Venues at the EIS. Prior to the Olympics, that number was 200.

Because of the reduced standard in facilties, however, a ceiling has been struck.

Minichiello added: “What we’re finding is the indoor 200m track is incredibly crowded with over 700 youngsters involved in academies, and because of that success it will start to push the club time out.

“Kids are very fickle. If their needs aren’t met quickly they’ll gravitate to other sports and as a consequence of that, that doesn’t really support the overall health of Sheffield, which is ultimately what we’re trying to improve.

“Not everybody is going to be an Olympic champion, but they can be more active and everyone can be healthier. Iconic facilities like Don Valley help towards that.

“An unfinished Woodburn Road, unfortunately, doesn’t. To lose an iconic stadium is incredibly shortsighted and somewhat sad.

“Sheffield International Venues are to be commended on what they have done with the academies, though. On top of the 700 there are waiting lists full of kids desperate to get involved. That is fantastic, but it is also sad that there are waiting lists because there isn’t the capacity to deal with it.

“An indoor facility at Woodburn may take that capacity to 1,300-1,400 kids. This is what the Olympics was supposed to give us. London would get the facilties, but the rest of the country would get the inspired children, and it’s up to us with the facilities we have to harness that and promote a healthier lifestyle and take the pressure off the NHS.

“This was Sheffield’s opportunity and they’ve pushed that potential opportunity two years on because Woodburn Road won’t have an indoor facility before then. That’s the short-sighted approach of the council.

“It was naive of me to think that things would get better after Jess’s success.

“But I don’t want to be negative. Sheffield Hallam University is involved and their involvement will grow and grow. The approach of both universities has been one of the most gratifying aspects since the Olympics, because their willingness to be involved in athletics is much higher than before. We just need the better facilities to entice and retain these kids.”