Ó Catháin's indoor arena of dreams warms up a bitterly frosty morning
ATHLETICS:He greets me with an enormous bear hug, and the look of a man who might well have smashed another indoor world record.
“This must be the most historic day in Irish athletics,” says Eamonn Coghlan, probably exaggerating slightly, but not unreasonably so.
Behind him, students from the Athlone Institute of Technology are lacing up their spikes, beaming like children, as if, like me, finally discovering their very own field of dreams.
And standing trackside is the man who finally built it so we could all come – one of the most wanted sporting facilities in the entire country.
“Well, there probably hasn’t been a day in the last year when I haven’t been in here, or talking with someone on the site,” says Ciarán Ó Catháin.
“And enough people said to me we’d never build it, never get it done.”
How utterly fitting then, on a bitterly frosty morning in the midlands, the doors are at last opened on Ireland’s first international standard 200-metre indoor running track, that looks, feels and even smells so great – function and form in perfect harmony – it’s almost worth the long, long wait.
How perfect, too, that the man to offer the opening verdict is the Chairman of the Boards himself, who although retired, is still considered the greatest indoor miler of all time.
“Just walking in here gets the adrenaline flowing,” says Coghlan. “I haven’t felt as excited in 20-odd years, or 1994, when I was going to the indoor track at Harvard University, and ran my last sub-four-minute mile, indoors, at 40. Because we do have such a proud tradition of winning medals, breaking world records, but the building of this arena must be the most historic day in Irish athletics.
“Because it is absolutely fantastic, and Athlone deserve great credit for that, for not letting politics get in the way.”
Vision to build
For that, we can all thank Ó Catháin, the president of AIT, and now also president of Athletics Ireland: having the vision to build an indoor track was the easy part, but completing it, to such beautifully exact specifications, was at times harder than he’d even care to admit.
“It’s been part of our five-year plan really, then securing funding of €10m, but the bulk of that has come from our own resources, our own commercial activities. It was crucial, too, we made it international standard, had it heated, insulated, the complete package. We looked at building the shell of the arena first, but I couldn’t stand over building a shell. So we stuck with it.
“There were some days when I said to myself we should just forget about it, given the financial pressures across the whole Institute. But we always stayed within budget, and the recession, really, changed everything, because six or seven years ago this would have cost us €25 million.”
Athlone did get €737,500 in Government funding under the Special Athletics Tracks Initiative, to help them over the line, but otherwise it’s entirely self-sufficient: “That €10m, that’s the investment, completely paid off. So it will pay for itself now, all the running and maintenance, coming from the commercial activity. And we’re also looking at boxing events, concerts, and indoor exhibitions. The Community Games will certainly be using it this year too.”