LINFORD CHRISTIE had only just returned from his warm weather training in Australia so was excused. But for the rest who bravely turned up for sprint training on Thursday night at the modest stadium on Wormwood Scrubs named after the great Olympic and world champion it was torture as usual. An "indoor" warm-up area, known as "the shed", is open on one side to the frosty night air, and the artificial track is beginning to become threadbare. The dressing rooms are comfortably warm - but they won't be for much longer.
The London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham renamed the West London stadium when Christie became their most famous local sportsman by winning Olympic gold in 1992. They also gave him the freedom of the borough. Last Thursday his coach, Ron Roddan, was overlooking the efforts of 30 young hopefuls as they worked out beneath the prison walls, overlooked by Hammersmith Hospital.
Clearly this is not one of Europe's more imposing sports facilities, yet, as Livon Houslin, a coach breathing warm defiance into the night air, pointed out: "It's home for one of Britain's leading athletics clubs." The club is Thames Valley Harriers, of which Christie is still an active member. And their home offers Roddan the chance to search for Christie's potential successors. For the time being it also allows hundreds of inner- city kids the opportunity to experience the competition and conviviality of grass roots athletics. But by next year, or the end of this summer, it could all be lost.
The council says it can no longer afford to maintain the stadium. TVH have to come up with pounds 80,000 a year to stay, followed by another pounds 300,000 to lay a new track. In the meantime, the arena is to be mothballed from April. The children who go there at present will be turned away. And TVH members will have to use their own small clubhouse, which they built themselves, as changing rooms.
The Government says sport must be encouraged; the Labour- controlled council says it has more important things on which to spend its money. Its spokesman, Rory Taylor, said: "We've been hammered with cuts. Basically there is money available but not enough to keep the stadium running, so Thames Valley have been given time to come up with a business plan and sponsorship. It will remain open for them to train but it's going to hit the schools hard - the dressing rooms and showers will be shut unless people want to pay for them to be opened. But we don't want to lose the facility, and if Thames Valley don't come up with a plan, we might have to reconsider."
The threat is not just to TVH. The fact that Roddan and Christie still regularly use the little stadium has turned it into a Mecca for young and not so young athletes. Internationals, such as Adrian Patrick, who ran in the 400m in last summer's world championships, is a member of Windsor, Slough and Eton club but travels to west London "because that's where my coach is, and he's the best". He said: "If they closed the stadium it wouldn't hit me and the other internationals as badly as the kids and the middle aged people. They can't afford to go travelling miles to find a track. I'd just go wherever Ron went."
And where would Roddan go? "I suppose it would have to be Perivale, but there's not much there, it's a bit bleak." Sheltering in the Shed, it was difficult to imagine anywhere more inhospitable in which to train for the humidity of Atlanta. If Roddan had to move Christie would follow and the plaque commemorating his Olympic win and the renaming of the stadium would become meaningless, or, in the hopeful words of the council spokesman, "ironic".
Tony Taylor, the TVH president, hopes that at least they can continue to use the stadium, albeit with limited facilities, until next year. "We have every hope of a short-term agreement and we'd like a shot at operating the stadium. In the long term we would like an agreement with the council, as have other clubs around London. …