After losing the use of free facilities at Olympic Park to the Collingwood
Football Club, athletes will be forced to pay to use the track at the new
Lakeside Stadium. Photo: Rebecca Hallas
Lakeside's dash for cash
October 22, 2011.
NOT even the most deluded cheerleader would suggest that track athletics in Australia has been thriving.
With the London Olympics only nine months away, the team that represented this proud sporting nation returned last month from the world championships having reached just one track final, by virtue of the champion hurdler Sally Pearson.
Our field athletes fared a little better but the outlook is not bright and the situation in the city that has set the stage for decades of historic running events remains grim.
One of the great ironies of Melbourne's inner landscape is the fact that John Landy's famous moment of sporting heroism is depicted in a statue in front of what barely remains of Olympic Park and will soon become the domain of the Collingwood Football Club.
The bureaucratic thicket that saw the Magpies win a deal on prized land once bequeathed as a running track and sporting precinct for the people of Victoria has various versions.
But no one disputes the fact the Brumby government did a deal with Collingwood and the Melbourne Olympic Park Trust and athletics was moved away from its traditional home.
Any suggestion that athletics was being treated as a second-class citizen in Melbourne was hotly denied by all the major players, apart from those in athletics.
The loudest denials of all came from Magpies president Eddie McGuire, who was also a director on the Athletics Australia board.
McGuire led a chorus insisting that the athletes would be far better off at their new home in Albert Park, in what would become a $55 million elite track and community facility - part of the Lakeside precinct encompassing the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre.
What no one said at the time, but what the state government is finally admitting this week, is that far from being a gift to the athletics movement for its decision to sacrifice its prized position in the hub of Melbourne, athletes will have to pay to train at the new venue.
This is despite the fact the Brumby government expanded the footprint of the old Lakeside Oval to include a warm-up track on the condition that the venue would be available for community use.
Now the stadium is complete and today it will play host to its first big event, the Associated Public Schools athletics carnival.
One celebrated coach heavily involved in the event is the Olympic gold medallist and internationally renowned middle-distance champion Steve Ovett, who is based in Melbourne and spoke for a number of local senior athletics figures.
He's disappointed that the state's young athletics hopefuls must not only pay to train at the new venue but move through the red-tape placed on it by the precinct's controlling body, the State Sport Centres Trust.
''We should be trying to encourage people,'' Ovett told The Saturday Age.
''If a track is open it encourages people. They are never going to recoup the money by charging people to come through a turnstile. Let's not treat it like a trophy track, which is used only a few times a year.''
Despite earlier denials, the Victorian Minister for Sport, Hugh Delahunty, confirmed through a spokesperson this week that the new stadium would be operated on a ''user pays'' basis.
The minister was not available for further comment and referred us to the trust chief executive Simon Weatherill, whom the government claimed was finalising an athletics package.
The Saturday Age understands that anyone using the track could be forced to pay $50 annual membership to the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre and could also then be additionally charged each time they used the track to train.
This is despite the fact athletes have trained at Olympic Park for free in recent years and for close to the majority of its entire history.
The Australian athletics movement says it is unaware of the final cost to its members and potential members.
Athletics Australia president Rob Fildes said yesterday he was hopeful that the chairman of the State Sports Centres Trust, Bruce Mildenhall, would continue to co-operate with Athletics Australia. ''We understand they need to make a dollar out of this but we need to ensure that it's kept at a reasonable rate,'' Mr Fildes said.
Local member Martin Foley - who admits he has a conflict of interest, as the father of two local ''little athletes'' from the South Melbourne district club - has waged a battle alongside that club, which was initially refused access to the new Lakeside Stadium. That decision has now been reversed but has seen club memberships increase this season by some 30 per cent.
''This whole debacle illustrates the serious disconnect between the government's directives of more kids, more active, more often, and maximising return and minimising community participation,'' he said.
While Mr Foley's Labor government did the deal that saw the home of the athletics moved, he insists the Brumby government never envisaged the stadium with such complex and difficult access for the community.
For Athletics Victoria - at least those officials not appeased with the promise of smart new offices - this surely is the final insult. Duped by layer upon layer of government and one of the country's most powerful football clubs, whose own emerging stars train and learn their craft in parks around the nation for free, they face a battle to build numbers.
And they must do so, as the potential track-and-field athletes it is pushing to attract into the sport are learning it will cost them money and considerably more effort to turn up to train at the stadium that the athletics movement was promised would secure its future.
''A track is like a park,'' Ovett said. ''It shouldn't be about turnstiles and operating costs. We need to attract people, not turn them away.''