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The Don Valley Stadium mystery

05/08/2013

Don Valley

Picturesque is probably not the first word you would pick to describe the route of the Sheffield Half Marathon. But it’s my favourite 13 miler. Partly because it was the first half marathon I ran in 2002. And partly as the opportunity to warm up on the uber-spongy track of the Don Valley Stadium, where the race starts and finishes, with thousands of others feels pretty special.

Away from the stadium the course is reasonably flat for a city that is famously hilly. It’s difficult to go far in Sheffield without encountering a hill of some magnitude. Nevertheless it’s a wonderful city for running in. A place for tough runners. There’s no room for flat track bullies here. Yeah, Mo Farah might have won double Olympic gold but I bet he’s never done hill reps up Cobnar Road in the middle of a hailstorm.

London has some great running routes but it’s got nowt on Sheffield when it comes to beautiful places in which to enjoy a walk, cycle or run. A favourite of mine was the steady climb up to Ringinglow, where the outskirts of the city meet the Peak District. There’s a viewing point on a winding country lane beyond the village where it’s possible to gaze northwards across the city and miles beyond.

On a finger numbingly cold, clear autumn morning when there’s frost on the ground and the leaves have turned several shades of red, it feels exhilarating up there. You can admire the contours of the seven hills on which Sheffield nestles and appreciate how much wonderful green space there is in this industrial city. Peering into the distance most of northern England seems to be laid out before you. The view is so magnificent that it’s easy to forget that you are in the heart of the constituency of the Tory collaborator Nick Clegg.

After a brief pause, you can descend through the woods into the beautiful Porter valley with maybe a stop for a drink at the cafe beside Forge Dam before heading home via Endcliffe Park and the bohemian enclave of Nether Edge.

Next Sunday’s Sheffield Half Marathon will, sadly, be the last time the event uses Don Valley Stadium before it is demolished later this year. Sheffield City Council have announced that the stadium will close in September as part of budget cuts of £50 million. It will be demolished and the site redeveloped as a “sports and wellbeing park” including a new home for the local rugby teams, Sheffield Eagles and Rotherham Titans, but there will be no athletics. There are, as yet, no details of how the plans are to be funded.

Now I don’t know about you, but after watching the likes of Mo Farah and Jess Ennis excel in the Olympics, my idea of an Olympic legacy didn’t involve knocking down perhaps the country’s finest athletics stadium outside London and replacing it with a rugby ground. The stadium was built for the athletics events of the 1991 World Student Games but now athletics in Sheffield will move to the considerably smaller and currently closed Woodbourn Road stadium closer to the city centre. The track there will be redeveloped as a 2,000 seater home for athletics. This will be the largest Olympic legacy project outside London.

Apart from several half marathons, I have some fond memories of the stadium including the athletics meeting in 1993 when the Czech Jan Zelezny broke the javelin world record with a monster throw that finished up somewhere on the outskirts of Rotherham. I’ve even seen the red shirted heroes of FC United of Manchester play there in a largely forgettable pre-season friendly against Sheffield FC in the summer of 2006. The oldest football club in the country against the youngest (at the time). I think this was the first football match played at the stadium before Rotherham United moved in for four seasons from 2008-09.

There have been plenty of emotive headlines about “Jess’s stadium” being knocked down (Jess Ennis trains here and this is where she was discovered), but sadly the stadium has struggled to earn its keep as an athletics venue. You can count the number of times it’s been full to its 25,000 capacity for an athletics event on the fingers of one hand. And now that Rotherham United have moved into their new ground another revenue stream has been lost. The decision to demolish the stadium is one that will please the council’s accountants.

But have we really lost all the excitement and hope for the sporting future of last year’s Olympics and Paralympics only a few months later? Are we only interested in making a few bob from sport? Or do we see sport as playing some greater role in society in making people fitter, healthier and happier? And where will the Olympic medal winners of the future be discovered? Both Jess Ennis and her coach Tony Minichiello have expressed their dismay at the decision.

Financial issues aside, it should concern us that Don Valley Stadium, as we know it, has no future. This is no decrepit football ground with crumbling terraces. It’s a mere 22 years’ old and being a modern facility it incorporates some clever architectural features. The people who planned the stadium clearly thought long and hard about its design. For instance, its situation in a bowl below ground level and sheltered from cross winds is designed to maximise performance and provide easy access for disabled spectators and competitors. Sadly, South Yorkshire’s athletes of the future will no longer be able to benefit from such a well appointed venue.

The last couple of miles of the half marathon through Atlas and Attercliffe are invariably tough as the crowds thin out and legs begin to tire. But eventually you get a glimpse of the stadium again, hear the crowds and get a wonderful burst of energy for that final push. I daresay, being the crying-at-the-soppy-bits-in-films softie that I am, there may well be a tear in my eye as I enter the home straight of Don Valley Stadium for the final time on Sunday.

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