Can Dublin be reinvented as sports hub?


As part of our REINVENTING DUBLIN series, IAN O'RIORDAN argues that our capital should be able to take its place among the great sporting cities of the world, but we’re not even out of the starting blocks

Some people might need reminding that Dublin once did, in all seriousness, consider bidding for the Olympics, mapping out a site down in the docklands, and promising to transform existing sporting facilities to help stage the greatest show on earth.

It was 1992, and Gay Mitchell, then Lord Mayor, in fact established several working groups to examine the necessary infrastructure, before being brought back down to earth by Pat Hickey, president of the Olympic Council of Ireland, who warned him “we couldn’t even build the jacks”.

Now, 20 years on, as hard as it is to fathom, Dublin’s potential of ever hosting the Olympics seems further away than ever: when London was awarded the 2012 Olympics, our politicians jumped the gun once more, considering Dublin an ideal training base for teams wishing to acclimatise, familiarise, etc.

Again, that proved wishful thinking. Indeed UCD was trumpeted as a perfect training base, yet shortly afterwards dug up its running track, and hasn’t touched it since. No wonder the precious few teams that did come were, essentially, nobodies.

Truth is Dublin would still struggle to offer any proper Olympic venue, with just a few exceptions: Croke Park, its 82,300 capacity making it the fourth largest stadium in Europe, could host the football (provided the GAA give permission), and likewise the 51,700 all-seater Aviva Stadium, although both grounds were redeveloped without room for a running track – the pity there being both actually started life as athletics facilities.

The Aviva Stadium will host this season’s Heineken Cup final, and attracted the Europa League final two years ago, although again, the IRFU’s potential bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup will be dependent on the GAA allowing Croke Park to be used too, plus its other main GAA stadiums around the country. With no small irony, that final would probably end being played in Croke Park.

London used many existing facilities to host the Olympics, including the ExCel, Wembley Arena, and the O2 – to go with their spanking new velodrome, swimming arena, and of course Olympic Stadium.

Dublin could possibly do likewise, or at least use Dun Laoghaire as a sailing venue, and might even squeeze an event into the Dublin Convention Centre, although for its €380 million price tag, it so far only seems suitable for staging sporting awards, rather than sporting events.

Some optimists might point to the excellent job Dublin did of hosting the Special Olympics, in 2003, although in terms of necessary sporting infrastructure, they were more along the lines of the Community Games than Olympic Games.

One particular facility remains sorely lacking, and perhaps best demonstrates how Dublin has missed countless opportunities to reinvent itself as a truly worthy sporting capital: back in 1987, Charles Haughey, then Taoiseach, staged a press conference at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, surrounded, I’m told, by most of his cabinet. With typical pomp, Haughey unveiled the Government’s long-promised plan for a National Convention Centre, which after a feasibility study costing well over one million of our dear old punts, was finally approved for the Dublin docklands.

It would, assured Haughey, house the similarly long-promised Indoor Sporting Arena, and with that give Irish athletics the indoor track it desperately needed.

Truth is I wasn’t there, although my father was, and overcome with a sense of déjà vu, he stood up in front of the assembly to ask whether he’d see this indoor track in his lifetime, to which Haughey cynically replied: “How old are you, young man?” – prompting all-round laughter.

Well, my father is not a young man anymore, although he is still living in hope, that he’ll see this indoor track in Dublin in his lifetime.

Later, in 1999, I stood in Santry Stadium to hear Jim McDaid, then minister for sport, unveil grand plans for an indoor track, to be built adjacent to the athletics stadium, yet no stone was ever turned; and in 2004, I heard another then minister for sport, John O’Donoghue, buzzing about his great new venture at Abbotstown, which would, eventually, boast an indoor sporting arena. Although, thankfully, Bertie never got to build his bowl there, either.

Sometimes it’s a matter of building it, and they’ll come: the National Boxing Stadium, down on South Circular Road, is hardly the most modern facility, but its modestly equipped gym has helped win us four Olympic medals in London.

The National Basketball Arena, in Tallaght, and the National Aquatic Centre, in Blanchardstown, are equally valuable, but would require major upgrading to stage an international championship.

Indeed Hickey more recently declared that we still have “zero percent” of proper Olympic facilities in Dublin, and perhaps the best we can hope for right now is that should Gaelic Games ever become an Olympic sport, at least then Dublin could step up to the starting blocks.

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