Ó Catháin's indoor arena of dreams warms up a bitterly frosty morning

Thu, Jan 24, 2013, 00:00

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.”

What they have now have, and what Irish athletics has been waiting on for over 30 years, is a proper, permanent, world-class indoor track, capable of staging international events, complete with over-hanging warm-up strip and permanent seating for 2,000 spectators.

Naturally, the track was what mattered most – and lacks for nothing, the Mondo surface exactly the same as used by all major international tracks (including the London Olympic Stadium), and built on boards, too, across a vast steel frame, which offers the best chances of clocking fast times. Athlone student John Travers ran a 1,500m time trial here on Tuesday night, clocking 3:42.53 and declared it “very, very fast”.

Indoor venues

“Our design team went around Europe,” says Ó Catháin, “looking at other indoor venues, and we picked the best aspects of those, really, so that we’d have an indoor track that would meet the needs, with the proper legacy to go with it.

“Some of the wood used in the centre area is actually recycled from the ExCel in London, and while we looked at different colours, settled for the blue, with the traditional red in all non-competitive areas, matching the seating plan with it.

“The glass face on the back stretch helps too, brings in the light, and looks out at the playing fields. That actually adds to the atmosphere too. There’s a great spacious feel.

“And of course it’s fantastic for everyone involved in the sport; fills an important role. We already have clubs and teams booked in, but we’re open to everyone, from 8 in the morning to 11 at night.

“If any athlete in the country wants to come down here, use the track, they can, paying just €8. Athlone students pay just €5.”

It’s a track that is music to all our ears. “It’s the sound, and the bounce, of the wooden track I love,” says Coghlan. “And feeling the vibration, like playing a very nice guitar.

“The response from the track is always better on wood, than concrete. The crowd will hear the beat too, off the track, and that inspires the crowd too.

“I’d envy a young athlete that gets to run around here. It really is that good.”

Athlone stages it first test event this Sunday, with the AI Indoor Games, and a likely sell out for the National Championships, on February 16-17th.

Athlone Indoor Arena:

The numbers

9,715 m2 – floor area size

850 tonnes – structural steel

50,000 – concrete blocks

2,000 – spectators

€10.2 million – The cost

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