Athletics faces hurdles at new home
March 4, 2012
THINGS could have started better. The concrete blocking access to the stadium made Athletics Australia's new Lakeside home in Victoria look like the Gaza Strip and, of course, it was blowing a gale. A few more, and better athletes, competing would have been nice and a crowd wouldn't have hurt either.
But the competition was good. Needless to say, Sally Pearson ran and won. Two more athletes jumped and ran themselves on to the plane for London. That there were not more athletes able to do the same at an Olympic qualifier remains unsettling but despite its messy gestation this baby born of necessity could yet prove superior to its predecessor.
The new home for some is a soulless alternative to the former historic venue at Olympic Park. And as shiny, new - and blue - as the track and stadium looks for some there remains something distasteful about it being here at all. The reason is that athletics was seen to have been muscled out from beside the Yarra as part of a Collingwood conspiracy.
Collingwood will have a training ground built on the old track. The football club has taken over the other half of the building it had been sharing with the Victorian Institute of Sport. Athletics Australia's president, Rob Fildes, played for Collingwood, Magpies president Eddie McGuire is on AA's board and discussions over an expansion were had with the former government and its Collingwood-supporting premier, John Brumby.
These facts tend to create a fog, rather than smoke, which points to fire. Anne Lord, who was president of Athletics Victoria for six years including the time of the move to Albert Park and who is now on the AA board, said the push to move athletics was made by the Melbourne and Olympic Park Trust and predated Collingwood's shift down the river from Yarra Falls.
''It was not Collingwood as such that kicked us out of the precinct,'' Lord said. ''The trust wanted a tenant that could pay and it might well be that Collingwood was the tenant. But if it wasn't Collingwood it was going to be someone else - they offered it to Melbourne footy club at the time - it just wasn't going to be athletics, unfortunately.''
Fildes added: ''As far as my association with Collingwood Football Club is concerned, I played for them, but my first love has always been athletics, I played football as an amateur so I could continue to do athletics and the connection with Eddie McGuire has got absolutely nothing to do with the decisions that were made in that area.''
Meanwhile, the state government agreed to build a new rectangular stadium and did so on the ground Collingwood used to train on. The football club had a contract with the trust to have an oval to train on within a few hundred metres of the club. When the government built AAMI Park for soccer and rugby they were thus contractually obliged to bulldoze Olympic Park. Collingwood did not kick athletics out of Olympic Park. But football did. Athletics over decades had fallen victim to the squeeze of the AFL monolith that has sucked the life from all other sports.
''To be truthful athletics didn't pay its way,'' Lord said. ''We didn't get great crowds, it was more a participant sport than a spectator sport. Despite the legacy of the Olympic Games they couldn't really justify our staying there.''
Olympic Park's demise has been analogous of athletics' recent history. The stadium spoke to a time of past glory when track and field dominated the landscape and football was a game played by local suburban clubs in a state league. Football grew, athletics didn't