What does a city need with a velodrome? Sporting facilities and legacy: the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, 1970 and 1986

Posted: Mon, 04 Aug 2014 10:26

What does a city need with a velodrome? Sporting facilities and legacy: the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, 1970 and 1986

As we move through the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, the talk of the commentariat inevitably shifts towards what the competition's legacy will be. Host nations and cities of major competitions increasingly tout the value of legacy when attempting to justify the costs of such tournaments, despite subsequent targets with regard to sporting performance and tourism rarely being met. So one of the more tangible aspects of legacy involves the building of facilities that are deemed to be 'world-class', ones which can be used by citizens of a host nation in the years afterwards. One event of these Commonwealth Games – diving – takes place at the Royal Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh, which was originally built for the 1970 British Commonwealth Games, and reused for the 1986 Games in the same city. The 'Commie' is thought by many to be an architectural gem: a rare example of Brutalist 1960s architecture which has stood the test of time; and, as far as legacy is concerned, it is a successfully-managed facility controlled at arm's length by local government. Less discussed, however, will be the Meadowbank Athletic Complex, whose stadium and velodrome are currently threatened with demolition.

Meadowbank Stadium has been the subject of high-profile rescue campaign; on the other hand, it's remarkable that the Velodrome managed to be built at all, let alone survive for more than four decades. Its troubled existence allows sport policymakers to critically analyse the motivations of key actors in the construction of sporting sites, as well as to chart the changing politics and expectations of 'second-order' sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games, in line with 'mega-events' such as the World Cup and Summer Olympics. And again, there is the question of 'legacy': Glasgow and Edinburgh are not Amsterdam, Copenhagen, or Antwerp – cities with infrastructure designed explicitly with cycling in mind – so the use of a facility such as a velodrome must have relevance beyond 'podium' performance.

The accidental genesis of the Meadowbank Velodrome

In the run-up to 1970 and 1986, the subject of hosting cycling took an inordinate amount of negotiation between Games organisers, governing bodies of sport, and local government. As late as May 1967, the organisers of the 1970 Games had still not decided where the competition's cycling would take place. The Commonwealth Games Council for Scotland wanted the sport to be held within the city limits, but the Edinburgh Corporation initially baulked at the £100,000 expense of a new cycling track, when a track already existed around 25 miles outwith the city in Grangemouth, near Falkirk. By the end of January 1968, Games chief Sir Herbert Brechin was in no doubt that it was 'impossible' to host the cycling within the city, despite the Executive Committee promising to do so in the bid proposal for the Games submitted two years previously. Besides, he claimed, Grangemouth Town Council were keen to host the event, and this would go some way towards addressing concerns that these were not 'Edinburgh's Games', but 'Scotland's Games'. (One particular quirk of the Commonwealth Games bidding process was that submissions were made as nations, not as cities.) Brechin was sure that he could convince the cycling authorities, namely the British Cycling Federation, that Grangemouth Stadium was a high-calibre venue capable of hosting Commonwealth Games cycling.

But the sporting authorities didn't buy it. One handwritten letter stated that the cycling mandarins were 'severe' in their criticism of Grangemouth's new track: they warned that cyclists would refuse to participate there unless Grangemouth Town Council spent a great deal more money bringing it up to international cycling standards. Brechin expressed confusion at the exact definition of a 'suitable track' in the language of the cycling authorities. After a meeting with the British Cycling Federation and Scottish Cyclists' Union in June 1968, Brechin announced that both had grudgingly accepted the Grangemouth track. 'With some modifications', he stated in his progress report, 'Grangemouth Stadium would measure up to a track similar to that used for the 6th Games at Cardiff in 1958', and that with modification, the cyclists' own rules 'did not disqualify' Grangemouth from being suitable for 1970. Besides, he implied, time was running out.

At the next meeting of the Main Organising Committee later that month, however, one committee member slammed Grangemouth, stating that it was not comparable to Maindy Stadium, used for cycling in Cardiff 1958, which had been in his words, of a standard that was 'in 1958… regarded as minimal'. Still the Committee pressed on, even if modification of the stadium did not. It wasn't until near Christmas 1968 where an inspector from the International Cycling Association finally killed the Grangemouth plan. The bankings of the track, he stated, needed to be elevated to a minimum of 28°, something that would prove impossible. Immediately, the Edinburgh Corporation were notified of their need to provide adequate cover for the cycling events, and its solution was to hold the cycling at the newly-built Meadowbank Sports Complex, where the athletics stadium would be located. This was after a brief flirtation with having a temporary track at the rugby ground at Murrayfield.

The new 250m Meadowbank cycle track would be built outside the stadium, and its use beyond the immediate remit of the 1970 Games was not even considered. Its public address tannoy was temporary, provided for the venue free of cost by the Army, as a permanent speaker system was considered impractical. Changing rooms and bicycle storage were arranged in an ad hoc fashion, having not been discussed by the Main Organising Committee until near the time of the Games' opening. We haven't even mentioned the most conspicuous aspect of Meadowbank Velodrome yet: it was outdoors, with no roof; and seating and ticketing, like everything else, was organised at the eleventh hour.

A sporting event in Thatcher's Britain

The 1970 British Commonwealth Games took place in the context of growing central government funding of sport, at least during the term of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who appointed the first Minister for Sport in the person of Denis Howell. (Labour would be voted out of office shortly before the beginning of the 1970 Games.) But the 1986 Commonwealth Games, hosted once again by Edinburgh (reluctantly, rumour had it), took place in a very different sporting and political context. The Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher forced the 1986 Games to adopt private company status and a private funding model, raising money through corporate sponsorships and private donations, without access to central government funding. It was hoped that this would mimic the successful approach adopted by the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, only the 1986 organisers failed to secure the necessary cash. Games organisers were bailed out at the last minute by publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, whom court papers would later prove contributed no money to the failed enterprise. Many of the Games' creditors were left in crippling debt. Added to this was the boycott by African, Caribbean, and Asian nations in response to Thatcher's trade with apartheid South Africa, and the England team's inclusion of the South African-born Zola Budd and Annette Cowley. The 1986 Games, understandably, are remembered for none of the right reasons.

The provision for cycling for the 1986 Games represented the first major crisis for the Organising Committee, as well as Edinburgh District Council, which was tasked with building facilities that they would ostensibly inherit for municipal use after the Games. The relationship between the bodies represented the shifting dynamics of power within international sport. Many of the organisers, including Games chief Kenneth Borthwick – like Brechin, a former lord provost of Edinburgh – fondly remembered the successes of 1970, and sought to replicate them. But a great deal had changed in the worlds of sport and politics, and visits to the 1984 Olympics by Commonwealth Games officials demonstrated the increasingly high standard which international sporting bodies demanded for running events. Games officials were, for instance, amazed by the 'electronic mail' system used at LA 84, but concluded that it would be a waste of finances, given that the system seemed to benefit only journalists – who demanded to know results instantly – rather than Games organisers themselves.

The brave new world of email, or LA 84's Hollywood-produced Opening Ceremony, was a long way from the austere realities of Scottish and British municipal politics during the 1980s. A Labour city council, led by the hard-left Alex Wood, took charge in Edinburgh in 1984. Wood and Labour's recreation spokesman, Mark Lazarowicz (who would replace Wood following a no-confidence vote in 1986, shortly before the Games began), scrutinised every aspect of the building work undertaken by the Council for the Commonwealth Games.

Games organisers planned to reuse the Meadowbank Velodrome. The building lay derelict after years of underuse, and considerable funds were needed to shore up the building's structure. But the price tag was inflated considerably by one particular necessity demanded by cycling's governing authorities: a roof. Figures initially made by Games authorities in 1982 estimated that capital revenue expenditure for the Velodrome alone would cost £2.7m, the majority of the estimated Steering Committee's £4.85m total. The roof was to cost at least £1.5m. A promised Sports Council grant to pay for the construction never materialised. Once Labour took charge of Edinburgh District Council, they refused to foot the bill for the roof; and, in May and June 1984, the Council asked Secretary of State for Scotland George Younger for a bailout to pay for the inflated construction bill. Younger promptly refused, and the Council went ahead with plans to make improvements to the Velodrome without building a new roof.

Amazingly, cycling at the Games continued without a roof over the Velodrome – especially incredible, considering the Scottish weather. Throughout 1984, the District Council were sent hard letters by the Commonwealth Games Council for Scotland and the Union Cycliste International, demanding that a roof be placed over Meadowbank, but ultimately these efforts, along with Games organisers' goal of forcing the Council to build a roof, failed. As the Games were privately funded, the organisers were forced to renegotiate their contract with the newly-elected Council. Facility construction was only a part of a longer dispute in which the Council consistently pressed for its ability to advertise on property it paid for and owned, and would operate after the Games.

A legacy for today?

There wasn't a term for it in the 1980s, but Edinburgh Council seemingly defined their activism largely in terms of the 'legacies' that are now routinely a part of bids to host major sporting events: in times of austerity and slimming budgets, what do host cities and nations get out of it? Is the price worth it for the taxpayers? Now more than ever, these questions are relevant, questions in which elite sporting bodies and their athletes are not the only, or even necessarily the most important, stakeholders. So, as the Meadowbank Velodrome continues to crumble, it is worth asking as Glaswegians gaze upon the admitted magnificence of the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow's East End: what does a city, with systemic issues surrounding unemployment and poverty, need with a velodrome?

Dr. Matthew L. McDowell is a lecturer in sport and recreation management at the University of Edinburgh


Dr. Fiona Skillen is a lecturer in sport and events at Glasgow Caledonian University


Tags: Legacy, London 2012, Sport, Sport and Development, community sport


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