Nick Westby – Sheffield building a true Olympic legacy that is unique to the world

GROWING up in Sheffield, the Don Valley Stadium was a beacon for a variety of top-class sports across a whole range of abilities.

David Hobson with Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park in the background. (Picture: Chris Etchells)
David Hobson with Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park in the background. (Picture: Chris Etchells)

Raised in a sports-mad family, it is where we watched a young javelin thrower named Steve Backley in the World Student Games of 1991, where we returned every year for the McVitie’s Challenge, and it was a place we knew could attract some of the finest athletes in the world.

Once reality had dawned that I would never be classed in that number and writing about sport would become my vocation, I still visited the Don Valley Stadium to report on everything from the Sheffield Eagles to Rotherham United, the English Schools Athletics Championship to the British American Football finals.

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Jessica Ennis contested those schools athletics finals on a track that would eventually become a second home in the lead up to her crowning moment at London 2012, when she won heptathlon gold.

Feature on the Olympic Legacy Park in Sheffield. (Picture: Chris Etchells)

Without the facilities at Don Valley Stadium she might never have scaled such heights.

So when it was announced that the stadium that had stood for nearly a quarter of a century was to be torn down in the months after Ennis’s accomplishment had earned the venue its ultimate validation, it was a bitter pill to swallow.

But six years later, a walk around the regeneration that has been undertaken on the site, the decision to destroy Don Valley – one that at first wrankled with the Sheffield sports public – looks now to have been one well made. For where once Don Valley Stadium stood is a sprawling site filled with buildings and venues that have health and wellbeing for everyone, from professional athletes to members of the public, at its very core.

The site of the old stadium, which on reflection had become an under-used white elephant and a drain on the city’s tax payers, is now known as the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park, a busy landscape of education and activity.

Artist's impression of the future home of Sheffield Eagles and Sheffield United Women.

The park was the brainchild of Richard Caborn, the former sports minister and long-standing cheerleader for the Steel City.

He saw in the destruction of Don Valley Stadium, a chance to regenerate an industrial heartland in Attercliffe.

Sheffield Arena, iceSheffield and the English Institute of Sport which stood before remain three of the primary buildings of Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park, but there is so much more.   

Now into year-four of what is a 15-year plan, a public school for the local community that is home to 1,200 children aged between two and 16 – called the Oasis Academy Don Valley – is already operational. There is a University Technical College on site for Y9-Y13 (age 13-19), specialising in computing, health sciences and sport science, and nearing completion is the focal point of the project, the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre.

Run by Sheffield Hallam University, the AWRC will be the research hub for the National Centre for Sport and Exercise Medicine, which is already taking 80,000 clinical appointments per year away from the NHS, with activity and exercise being the preferred remedies.    

Over the next few years, the plan is to build an Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation Research and Innovation Centre, a Centre for Child Health Technology and offices to accommodate like-minded multi-national companies.

From a sporting perspective, a 40-week build will begin in April to deliver a 3,900-capacity stadium where Sheffield Eagles and Sheffield United Women will play.

Plans are also in place for a permanent basketball arena for the Sheffield Sharks to call home.

They are closing in on securing the £4m of funding they have desperately been seeking for the last few years.

It all sounds very exciting, but also very expensive. Yet while the Sheffield taxpayer footed the bill for Don Valley Stadium, everything that now stands on the old site and will do so in the future has been secured through private and central government public sector funding.

For example, Legacy Park Ltd (the operational arm of the Olympic Legacy Park partnership between Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Sheffield City Council), made an application for a government grant of £14m to build the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, was successful in that bid and then gave the money to Hallam University to deliver the project. Money for the University Technology College came from the Education Funding Authority, while the green space, running routes and cycle paths that weave through the park were funded by the Sheffield City Region Infrastructure Fund.

Even the remediation of the old stadium plot was funded by European Regeneration Development Fund.

“We want this to become the advanced manufacturing park for sport, health and wellbeing,” explains Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park project director David Hobson, in relation to another innovation-driven regeneration just a few miles down the road in Catcliffe.

“We want to be seen as a global centre for health, sport and wellbeing that benefits the whole community. We think what we have here is unique in the world. No other country or city is developing what we are.”

Certainly it is a standard bearer, and when the ‘L’ word is mentioned, Sheffield can feel confident it is delivering one.

An Olympic legacy requires four improvements: economic regeneration, environment, local community and an increase in the level of sports participation.

SOLP ticks all four boxes. For while participation levels are questionable in some sports since the London 2012 Games, in this corner of Sheffield where 13 Olympics sports are accessible to everyone from professionals athletes to amateur novices, a legacy is in action.

“We’ve had visits from the Tokyo Olympic committee to see if they can learn anything about how they create a legacy,” adds Hobson, referring to next year’s Olympic hosts. “We want to get people understanding that sport is for all people and all abilities.

You as an amateur can train alongside professionals. This park is accessible to all. We believe we are giving people more than what they lost from the Don Valley Stadium.”

It is a convincing argument, and as I stand on a 100-metre track that runs on a pathway between the University Technical College and the building site of the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, with the future home of Sheffield Eagles and Sheffield United Women to my left, it is hard to disagree.

Don Valley Stadium provided a glut of fond memories for the city’s people, but the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park gives it a focal point of sport and health for future generations.