Olympic gold medalist Jessica Ennis’ coach said the closure of the stadium in Sheffield where she trains shows the “short-sightedness of us a nation” and called for a major rethink of how sport in Britain is organised and funded.
Tony Minichiello said Sheffield Council’s decision to withdraw a £700,000 subsidy for the Don Valley Stadium in a bid to cut £50 million from its budget was a retrograde step that sends out the wrong message about our commitment to sport.
The decision means the stadium will be unable to stay open and it is set to close in September.
But Mr Minichiello added that it was unrealistic to expect local authorities to fund leisure facilities such as the £29 million venue in Sheffield without greater support from national government.
He said: “It’s incredibly disappointing that the Don Valley Stadium is being closed.
“It’s disappointing for athletics in the city but I understand the position the council has been put in by central government, which is demanding it makes these huge cuts.
“Facilities need to be supported by central government and local government combined.”
He said a top-down rethink is required to capitalise on the surge in interest major sporting events such as the London Olympics provide and to ensure sport plays a bigger role in people’s lives.”
Labour-run Sheffield Council said the £700,000 it spent subsidising the 25,000-seater Don Valley Stadium in 2012/13 is unsustainable as the facility is running at a loss.
Sheffield Council has proposed to spend £100,000 reopening of the track at the smaller Woodbourn Road Stadium nearby, which was shut down two years ago, but Mr Minichiello has already said a move there would represent a “hefty blow’’ to Ennis’ Olympic hopes in Rio.
Sheffield Council said it subsidises every visit to the Don Valley Stadium by more than £5 and the property requires major repair and maintenance work totalling around £1.6 million, which it simply cannot foot the bill for.
Mr Minichiello, who used the stadium to coach Ennis to gold in the heptathlon at London 2012, said he has spoken to the Olympian about the closure since the decision was made on Friday and said Ennis, who was training at the arena this morning, was “very sad”.
“She’s clearly disappointed,” he added. “That’s the stadium she walked into at nine years old and was inspired by.
“But it’s not how far you fall, it’s how fast you get up.
“We’ve had a discussion months ago about what we would do if it were to close.”
He said he and Ennis will continue to use the stadium until it shuts as they train for the 2013 World Championships in Moscow in August and they are looking at several alternative venues.
The 25,000-seat arena, which was a temporary home to Rotherham United FC for four seasons and has hosted gigs by Michael Jackson, Celine Dion and the Spice Girls, was built as the centrepiece of a £147 million construction programme when Sheffield hosted the 1991 World Student Games.
The funding of the games has fuelled 20 years of controversy in Sheffield that continues today.
Many still criticise the Labour councillors of the time for landing the city with hundreds of millions of pounds of debt that is still being paid off at around £20 million a year and will not be cleared until 2024.
Others have argued the games kick-started a move to make Sheffield one of most important centres for sport in the UK and left the city with world-class facilities, including the Ponds Forge swimming centre.
After she received her CBE at Buckingham Palace, Ennis, who has trained at Don Valley since her teens, said: “I’ve some amazing memories. I started my athletics career there.
“Having that iconic stadium in my home city is incredible. And to lose that would be such a shame for future athletes coming through.’
Mr Minichiello’s concern has been echoed by Rotherham-born runner and 1988 Olympic silver medallist Peter Elliott, who reportedly said that Woodbourn Road was not fit for purpose.