For more than a decade it’s been both a touchy subject and a gaping void at Ireland’s biggest university – the unexpected closure and long-running absence of an athletics track doing untold damage to the sporting reputation of UCD.
But a new and promising chapter began this week as the university opened its new 400-metre track.
The new era commenced with a two-lap ceremonial run around the blue surface by members of UCD AC, who since November 2011 have had to trek around Dublin to find a place to train.
But current students like Israel Olatunde – the fastest Irishman in history – will now have a world-class facility right on their doorstep, its blue surface comprised of “sandwich tartan”, according to Dominic O’Keeffe,director of student services andfacilities at UCD.
With the track at Morton Stadium in Santry also being resurfaced, and Dundrum South Dublin AC recently opening a new track, the facilities facelift across Dublin should prove significant help to the new generation of stars who are rising through the ranks.
While Dundrum opted for a Mondo surface, the lightning-quick track used at most major championships, UCD chose tartan due to it being softer and easier on the legs for daily use.
“It’s very hard to train on a Mondo track,” says O’Keeffe. “This is (primarily) a training track – we’re not trying to compete with anyone else.”
Both the track and field will be kitted out with all the facilities to allow it host competitions, with the Irish University Championships next April first on the agenda. The cost has been substantial.
Initially estimated at €3million, it has already risen above €4m “and counting,” due to unseen challenges like the pandemic, says O’Keeffe, with the development made possible by the generosity of an anonymous donor.
The donor is a graduate of the university but is “outside of the normal people you’d think of” says O’Keeffe.
His motivation in making the donation went back to his admiration while studying at UCD for the work ethic of student-athletes. When in discussions with the university, he had asked what difference a track would make, and O’Keeffe cited the example of swimming and the progress made in UCD after it opened its 50-metre pool in 2012.
“With a swim director here, in five years we went from having no swimming pool to having a European medal,” says O’Keeffe. “So I said, ‘With the right facility and the right people involved, the students can follow the university motto of Ad Astra,’ which is to the stars.”
The old Belfield track had a long and illustrious life before its sudden evisceration in 2011, with UCD AC given just one day’s notice by university authorities that the track would be closed “due to health and safety concerns” given the “surface is badly worn and becomes slippery when wet”.
As athletes voiced their outrage and called for a reversal, JCBs were sent in to carve trenches across the track to make it impossible to use, with half of the site eventually turned into a car park in 2014.
It meant athletes faced lengthy journeys across the city to find a place to train, with former UCD student Ciara Mageean branding the decision to close the track without any proper plan for a replacement a “disgrace”.
The track had been a key hub in Irish athletics since the 1950s, starting out as a grass track before a cinder surface was laid in 1974. The synthetic tartan surface was installed in 1977, with Belfield soon becoming the go-to place for major championships, from schools to national seniors.
The old track will be best remembered for the GOAL event that took place there on 17 August, 1985, where Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan, Frank O’Mara and Ray Flynn teamed up to smash the 4 x mile relay world record, the quartet clocking 15:49.08 in front of a crowd of thousands, a record that still stands today.
The new track will provide a key platform from which students can chase their sporting dreams, with a tranche of talented athletes based at UCD like Olatunde, Sarah Healy and Darragh McElhinney.
Another of those is Nicola Tuthill, the 18-year-old Bandon star who finished eighth in the world U-20 hammer throw final in Colombia over the summer. In the weeks ahead, she will have the benefit of a new hammer cage to train with, while the venue is also kitted out with all the in-field facilities.
“What was important to the donor was that it was centred in the community of Dublin and the students,” says O’Keeffe.
Which brings us to usage. UCD’s high-performance athletes will be given daytime slots to train there, while UCD AC will have it for two evenings each week and it will also be rented out to various other clubs, with Blackrock AC likely to anchor there in the years ahead. The track will also be available to use for members of UCD Sport & Fitness, but unlike many other university-owned tracks, it will not be open to the public on a pay-as-you-go basis.
“For individuals to come in and go for a run, they can’t do that,” says O’Keeffe. “The pay-a-fiver-on-the-gate wouldn’t work for us due to insurance reasons and the cost of running that system.”
The development is part of a major revamp of facilities at UCD, with O’Keeffe noting the university is spending “about €85m in the next three years on top of this.”
That will include new indoor tennis and music centres, along with a new indoor sports hall that will house four basketball courts. All-weather soccer and rugby pitches are also under construction.
The track’s journey to fruition saw it encounter a number of bumps along the way, with work stopped twice at length due to Covid-19 lockdowns and the university having to apply for a special dispensation at one point to carry out critical work on soil stabilisation.
But now that the project has reached the finish, with a new era finally on its marks. “It’s great this facility has come back on board and that students won’t be having to run around the city,” O’Keeffe says. “It’s great to have it all on site. It’s an advantage to anyone who wants to study at UCD.”