Iconic Belfield track has run its course

 

IT WAS once a world record arena and witnessed some of the great performances during the golden era of Irish athletics but the UCD running track at Belfield has run its last race.

The track is now closed over “health and safety concerns” and after several years of neglect is effectively beyond repair: diggers have already moved on to the track to explore alternative uses, and it looks set to end up as a car park or the site of student accommodation, like many other former sporting sites at the Belfield end of the campus, including the old Belfield Bowl.

There were, and still are, plans to build an alternative six-lane track at the Clonskeagh end of UCD, where most of the college’s sporting facilities are now positioned, but this is subject to funding becoming available, and in the meantime it leaves the largest student campus in Ireland without an athletics facility of any sort for the foreseeable future, and almost certainly well into 2012.

UCD director of sport Brian Mullins did not want to be quoted on the precise future of the track, nor any future potential use, other than to confirm “the track is closed” – and a statement released through the UCD student president’s office also confirmed as much:

“The UCD running track has reached the end of its operational life and unfortunately has had to be closed due to health and safety concerns. Our advisors have reported that as the surface is badly worn and becomes slippery when wet, it should be closed to all users.

“Works to redress this situation have already commenced and we hope to be able to provide an alternative facility on campus in the future, subject to funding becoming available”.

The UCD track hasn’t actually been used as a competitive venue for the last number of years, but during the 1980s it was regarded as the home of Irish athletics – at least on the south side of the city.

It began life in the 1950s as a grass track, before an all-weather cinder surface was laid in 1974; three years later, the full tartan surface was laid, and with that Belfield quickly established itself as one of the best tracks in Ireland.

It became the preferred venue for the National Championships, and then, in 1985, established its world record reputation when hosting a special athletics meeting for the charity GOAL, on August 17th.

The cream of Irish milers of the time targeted the world record for the 4x1-mile relay, and ended up bettering the time by 10 seconds when clocking 15:49.08 – a record that still stands to this day.

It also drew one of the largest crowds in Irish athletics history, who witnessed the quartet of Eamonn Coghlan (4:00.2), Marcus O’Sullivan (3:55.3), Frank O’Mara (3:56.6) and Ray Flynn (3:56.9) underline their status as the world’s best milers of the time.

Olympic marathon silver medallist John Treacy also ran that day, as part of the second Irish team, and actually finished right alongside Coghlan after the first leg, also running 4:00.2. Treacy yesterday recalled several fond memories of running in Belfield, starting with his Irish Schools 5,000 metres record of 14:17.1, in 1974, which also still stands.

“I also remember the National Championships in 1980,” he said. “I wasn’t sure whether to run the 1,500 metres, or the 5,000 metres. I arrived down in Belfield, it was a lovely warm day, and a nice big crowd. So I said I’d run the 5,000 metres. The first lap was slow, 67 seconds, but then I took off, and ran solo.”

Treacy finished in 13:21.9 – a then Irish record, and which still stands as the National Championship record: “It really was a very fast track,” says Treacy, “and also a great place to train.”

Belfield is also famous for staging the first of the GOAL Mile challenges on Christmas Day, an event which this year celebrates it’s 30th anniversary, staging mile races at several venues around the country.

But there won’t be a GOAL Mile in Belfield this Christmas, and it remains to be seen when, if ever, the new track is laid at the Clonskeagh end of the campus, next to the new Belfield Park, gym, and various all-weather facilities.

Either way it’s definitely the end of an era, not just for Belfield but for Irish athletics.