Sunday 25 September 2016

Turning our backs on tomfoolery

The Sports Campus provides a welcome change to our habit of not doing things properly, writes John Greene

Published 05/04/2015 | 16:00

David Conway: ‘I’m learning from the past, I’m making sure we deliver on the deadlines in the present with an eye to what we can do in the future.’ Photo: Tony Gavin
David Conway: ‘I’m learning from the past, I’m making sure we deliver on the deadlines in the present with an eye to what we can do in the future.’ Photo: Tony Gavin

Just over three weeks ago, Fingal County Council granted planning permission for a new €8m velodrome and badminton centre to be built at the National Sports Campus. The news, significant as it was, barely registered.

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This will be Ireland's first velodrome, it will be built to the highest international standards, it will mean that our top cyclists will not have to go abroad to train and it will offer the country the opportunity to stage international events. And still, barely a ripple in the public consciousness. It's as if the mere mention of the campus, or Abbottstown, still conjures up images of another time, when Bertie Bowls and leaking roofs reduced the site to that of ridicule.

But that was a lifetime ago and what is happening at the National Sports Campus is a world removed from that tomfoolery. It's not just the scale of the development there, it is the fact that it is being accomplished to such high standards and with an underlying vision and clarity of purpose that - let's face it - has not always been the norm with publicly-funded developments in this country.

Let's put it this way, after spending an afternoon touring the campus, you get the sense that if the people driving this development had been in charge of building the M50 first time around, it would have had six lanes and flyovers from the start. That's because David Conway, the chief executive officer of the National Sports Campus Development Authority, and his team have gone to great lengths to ensure that not only is every new facility on site future-proofed, it also has a funding model so it will generate revenue. On top of that, they strive to ensure that all the facilities can be put to a multiple of uses.

"All my work in terms of sports facilities has to be towards multi-functional," says Conway. "We work to a model here and that's participation and high performance co-existing in the same environment.

"There's a couple of benefits from that; the first one is revenue streams in terms of the sustainability of the model, the other one is that participation athletes can see high-performance athletes training and perhaps they will want to emulate them - they will be role models. Also, though, I have found that high-performance athletes want to help participation athletes to see how they got there. So there's that whole lovely mix to drive the sport forward. I remember out in Morton Stadium [which is also managed by NSCDA] when Derval O'Rourke was training and there was a primary school thing on, and instead of going away and resting, she was hanging around just meeting kids and it was fantastic.

"We might be perceived as a high-performance centre, we are a high-performance centre and high performance has first call on it, but we have to make sure there is space for participation because otherwise the whole sustainability model is flawed."

Given how slow Ireland has been to wake up to the value of sport and how funding of sport over the last 20 years has been so badly tarnished by political favouritism and incompetence, the achievements in the last five years by Conway and his predecessor, Barry O'Brien, are remarkable. They got lucky too - which is always the way in any success story. When Leo Varadkar became Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, he was initially slow to warm to the sport portfolio, although he subsequently did a fine job. The campus, though, was a different matter. Yes, it is in his constituency, but that alone doesn't explain how and why he quickly became an ardent supporter of its development. He invested money in it and his interest in seeing it grow seems now to be shared by his successor, Paschal Donohoe.

Sport relies heavily on public funding. But in return for State support, the pay-off is that sport will deliver - firstly, the money will be used to get more people physically active thereby leading to a healthier population and so reducing, in the long term, the country's massive health budget; and, secondly, to improve standards in our elite athletes thereby creating international success, which in turn feeds into the well-being of the nation. When our rugby team wins the Six Nations, or our boxers win Olympic medals, or any Irish athlete or team goes into international competition and achieves high standards, there is a greater return. It's not necessarily something we can quantify, but it's there.

So the fact that a country which has been so slow to join all the dots in the relationship between public expenditure on sport and the well-being of its citizens, what we might call the national mood, is in the process of creating a centre of excellence which will be right up there, or indeed ahead of, its international equivalents, deserves recognition.

"It's on a par with what we know internationally - and in fact it actually caters for more sports than some of the centres I've seen," says Conway. "If you go to England, the centres are very sport-specific. Here, we've brought an array of sports all under the campus umbrella and the synergies from that and the viability from that are just superb."

The National Sports Campus is a 520-acre site in the north west of Dublin, just off the M50 on the outskirts of Blanchardstown. The showpiece is the National Aquatic Centre and it was the forerunner to the concept of high performance and participation co-existing under one roof. The NAC attracts almost 900,000 visitors a year, but Swim Ireland's high-performance unit is also based there and it has also attracted high-performance athletes from other countries.

When you go beyond the NAC, however, a whole new world opens up. "It is world class," says Conway. "I always said that it's a local amenity, but it's a national asset."

The campus is home to the FAI, the Federation of Irish Sport and 19 other national governing bodies and when Sport Ireland is set up - the merger of the NSCDA and the Irish Sports Council - it, too, will be based there.

Other completed developments are the National Horse Sport Arena, an Olympic-standard equestrian training facility for showjumping, dressage and eventing; the National Diving Training Centre, complete with diving boards and foam pits and which is the largest of its kind in Ireland and the UK; the National Modern Pentathlon Centre, with a fencing and shooting hall; all-weather synthetic pitches catering for soccer, Gaelic games, rugby and hockey; and athlete accommodation, which is currently used by Swim Ireland.

There are a number of projects currently under development. The Irish Institute of Sport is undergoing a massive extension which will allow it to deliver on the extraordinary depth and breadth of ideas being developed under its brilliant director, Gary Keegan. The Institute is a support structure for elite athletes which has been finding its feet after a rocky start. Sports science, sports medicine, coach development, in-depth analysis and video support, performance systems - all the areas around the fringes of athlete development which ultimately make a difference in the international arena. The extension will have a strength and conditioning area, a mixed training zone, rehab and medical facilities, a sprint track and a new facility dedicated to Ireland's boxers. The extension will be finished by this autumn.

The GAA, FAI, IRFU and Irish Hockey Association are all committed to building pitches on the campus. Indeed, the GAA's five pitches - including a replica of the Croke Park pitch - and the FAI's six pitches are at an advanced stage. A new pavilion with changing rooms for these pitches, as well as meeting and conference facilities, should be complete by July.

Then there is a new cross-country course under construction in the most picturesque corner of the historic site, which it is hoped will host the European Championships in 2017. Along with the cross-country course, separate running routes of 1km, 2km and 5km will be developed. This is a project Conway is particularly excited about. "There's a few models I've seen in the States that you have a seasonal pass and you can come in and run and train in a safe environment, or even just on a once-off basis." Conway would like to see the velodrome and badminton centre finished 18 months from now and then there is the big project, the one you feel that will finally shine a light on the campus: the National Indoor Arena. This, too, could be completed within two years given its current momentum. The arena will feature an indoor athletics track, with the standard six-lane 200m circuit, a 110m sprint track, throwing and pole vault area and spectator seating. There will also be a sports centre catering for up to 20 sports, including basketball, boxing, table tennis, etc; a gymnastics training centre and indoor synthetic pitches (a full-sized soccer pitch and half-sized rugby pitch) for the national squads.

"We wanted to make that space as multi-functional as possible in terms of the athletics track because the athletics season is more or less from October to Easter time," he says.

"You don't want to be locked into a venue that can't be multi-functional in its use. We can put 2,000 seats in there, you can put a small concert in there, because I want to create revenue streams to offset the costs of running the place. But if an NGB wants to go for a European bid and needs to put more (seats) into it, they can. The gymnastics space will have its own entrance - it will allow for high performance, but also we want to see a big academy grow. We have 2,200 kids a week learn to swim in the National Aquatic Centre, so we can see numbers of that magnitude using this gymnastics space as well.

"We will have a sports hall with a sprung floor, it can be subdivided. It has 1,500 bleacher seats and that will be able to look after any court game and again national championships for the lower-end NGBs only require maybe 800 to 1,000 seats, so 1,500 is more than enough. It's a big building, it's not a complex building, but it's essential for Irish sport."

Nothing comes easy and Conway and his team are always alert to opportunities to move the campus forward. "There's always challenges, funding, procurement, resources, operational issues, building developments and all that kind of stuff, they're all manageable if you know what you are really trying to do. I know it's an old cliche, but I'm trying to work in all three tenses, I'm learning from the past, I'm making sure we deliver on the deadlines in the present with an eye to what we can do in the future. I'm always trying to make sure that we have new facilities in the pipeline. And that's how I'm trying to move forward."

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