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SHARKS IN THE 50 METRE POOL

20-04-2007

The idea that Birmingham might have a so-called "tank in a shed" instead of a permanent Olympic-sized pool have been mocked by some observers. Why? asks Steve Beauchampé.

Birmingham City Council’s announcement that it is considering installing a temporary 50-metre swimming pool, most likely at either the NEC or NIA, in its attempts to persuade a leading nation to use Birmingham as a training venue for the 2012 Olympics has been greeted with predictable and misplaced derision.

While Leisure Scrutiny chairman John Alden’s reference to the proposed facility as ‘a tank in a warehouse’ was an unfortunate, ill-considered choice of words which presented both lazy journalists and his political opponents with an easy target, the thinking is sound, the technology available and the idea with considerable precedent.

Not least at the recent World Swimming Championships in Melbourne, where the city installed a temporary tank at the tennis centre. Likewise in Manchester, where, despite the availability of two 50-metre pools (built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games) at the Manchester Aquatics Centre, the city is installing just such a facility at the 19,500 capacity MEN Arena when it hosts the World Short Course Swimming Championships in April 2007.

Indeed, the use of temporary facilities is fast becoming the norm for major sports events. Temporary grandstands are in use at both the current cricket World Cup in the Caribbean, and at several Test grounds throughout the world.

Much of the infrastructure London will utilise for the 2012 Games will be temporary in nature (including the Olympic Stadium itself), downsized or converted once the three-week extravaganza is over.

Birmingham itself uses - to great effect - a much-praised temporary athletics track at the NIA each year along with a temporary Equestrian Arena for the Horse of the Year Show at the NEC. Ditto every concert and show held at the NEC Arena.

This is precisely why the venue takes the physical form that it does; it is flexible, adaptable and surrounded by increasingly sophisticated infrastructure. When Birmingham hosted the 1995 World Figure Skating Championships, it did not build a new ice rink, but installed one at the NIA for the period of the event.

Come 2012, every other major city in Britain will be called upon to provide high quality swimming facilities for national Olympic squads, and it is highly unlikely that any of them will find the money to build a 50-metre pool, for what is in essence a one-off training camp to which the public are unlikely to have much access.

Given the scarcity of British sports funding (and the lion’s share between now and 2012 won’t be going to the non-London area regions for capital projects) and the severe limits placed upon local authorities to raise finance, it is unrealistic to expect that Birmingham, or any other city, will be able to source the money needed for such a project. Far more prudent therefore, as Alden proposes, to commit around £1m on a state-of-the-art, temporary facility.

In theory, a 50-metre pool for Birmingham is a fine idea. However, with ongoing running costs estimated at around £1m per annum, such a facility may soon become a burden, paid for by the closure, or scaling back of maintenance work at, other less prestigious leisure facilities within the city.

At present, a temporary tank may be the most realistic solution.

Technology moves on, it’s a shame that the thinking of some of our politicians and journalists can’t keep pace.

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