Anonymous donation can bring glory days back to Belfield
Philanthropist steps forward to fill gaping hole left by closure of world-record track in 2011
Frank O’Mara, Marcus O’Sullivan, Ray Flynn and Eamonn Coghlan doing a lap of honour after setting the world record for the 4x1 mile relay on the Belfield track in August 1985. Photograph: Dermot O’Shea
For more than six years it’s been laid out half dismembered and still partly decomposed, as if resting in its own shallow and unkempt grave – and listening to its own lonesome echoes of athletes running and jumping and dreaming out loud.
Although not entirely quiet, as by day, half of what was once a world-record track serves as a busy car park. And the other half a remembrance of a glorious past.
There are still some holes in Irish sporting facilities, but none felt more gaping than the one left after the sudden closure of the track at University College Dublin (UCD) in November 2011.
Only now, 40 years after originally being laid, and over six years after being ripped up, the track is finally being brought back to life.
Not on that original site at the Belfield end of the campus, but in the now-designated sporting zone on the Clonskeagh side, and all thanks to an anonymous donation of €3 million.
That will cover the entire cost of building the new facility and maintaining it over the next 20 years, thus ensuring no similar tales of disrepair in the short term.
How much longer UCD would have waited for the new track without the donation remains unknown, as it seems will the identity of the donor.
What is certain is that both the university and the wider athletics community has a lot to be thankful for, such was the sense of abandonment during the last six years.
Work is due to get under way soon and the eight-lane tartan-surface track will also feature various in-field event facilities, such as long jump, hammer cage etc – all approved for competition purposes by the IAAF, the governing body of world athletics.
The designated site has been there since 2011, when the track was suddenly closed, initially over fears for “health and safety”.
UCD Athletics Club was given just 21 hours’ notice and told that given “the surface is badly worn and becomes slippery when wet” the track “should be closed to all users”.
At the time, a statement from the UCD student president’s office said: “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.”
By then that new site had already been set aside at the “sporting end” of UCD, on that west side of the campus where Leinster Rugby also have their training pitches, and next to the existing sports centre, Olympic-size swimming pool, the national hockey stadium and the UCD Bowl.
The cost of developing the track was then estimated to be around €1.6 million.
In the years since, the original track fell further into disrepair: JCBs carved out trenches at very deliberate intervals so as to render it useless for any training purposes.
For three years, it acted as a storage space for steel crates of bricks and other building materials for various construction projects around the campus.
Then in June 2014, the JCBs moved back in and turned the entire lower half of the track into a car park – the top half, including the finishing line and once-sacred track entrance, still lies in ruinous disrepair.
When first opened in June 1977 by then taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, costing £175,000 old Irish punts, Belfield was the first tartan running track in the Republic (the Mary Peters track in Belfast had opened on Easter Monday, 1976).
Complete with electronic timing and a photo-finish, it was a modern sporting venue par excellence.
Indeed, Belfield always had reputation for fast times, most famously at the Goal charity meeting on August 17th, 1985, when four of Ireland’s top milers, including Eamonn Coghlan, ran a 4x1-mile relay world record of 15:48.08, which still stands.
In recognising both the need and generosity of the donation, UCD president Andrew Deeks also gave a commitment to the maintenance of the track beyond the next 20 years: “We are extremely grateful to the anonymous philanthropist who stepped into the breach, and whose generous donation will now fully enable the project and the maintenance of the track for the next 20 years, after which the university is committed to maintaining the track.
“The lack of an athletics track on the campus has put additional pressure on our athletes, some of whom have had to commute daily between campus and off-campus facilities for their training sessions.
“We are grateful to these athletes and to the wider university community for their patience. The university always aspired to have a world-class athletics track as part of the overall sporting facilities, but lacked the funding to deliver on this aspiration.”
Professor Deeks also added that a key feature of a successful university campus was the availability of world-class sporting and recreation facilities – the provision of publicly accessible, attractive and welcoming facilities helps to promote a balanced, healthy life for students, faculty, staff and the wider community.
Nowhere was that more evident, or will it be, than on the UCD running track.