Build it and they will come: just be careful where you build it
The return of a running track to UCD is important but its location even more so
The old athletics track under demolition at UCD Belfield. Photograph: Eric Luke
There’s been a lot of nostalgia doing the rounds this week, especially out around Belfield. The news that UCD is finally getting a new athletics track, over 40 years after originally being laid, and over six years after being ripped up, has come as a sort of throwback to the good old days, and with that the promise of reliving them.
It certainly has not come a day too soon. There may well be some lasting mystery over the identity of the anonymous donor who has put up the €3 million to build the new track, and also ensure it is properly maintained for the next 20 years. But at least it’s taken the mystery out of wondering how much longer UCD, with the largest student body in Ireland, would have been left without a track had the money not landed at their feet.
Part of the fury and frustration at seeing the existing track serve as a car park over those last six years is the fact Belfield had once been a world-record arena, not just a running track but a sort of field of dreams for countless young athletes – including myself. The influence and impact of that track went far beyond the confines of Belfield and the reaction to its sad and sudden closing reflected that. There was no mistaking it as the shock and horror of an amputation, not the silent realisation of an old sporting facility that had perhaps run its course.
There is however a danger in getting too nostalgic about any sporting arena. Even in America where they worship at the altar of every small ballpark not much is really sacred. Look what they did to Yankee Stadium.
John Updike knew this exactly when he wrote his little gem of a story Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, still considered by many to be the finest piece of writing on baseball in the long history of the sport. Including baseball fans in Glencullen.
“Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artefacts, a compromise between Man’s Euclidean determinations and Nature’s beguiling irregularities.”
Beat that for an intro.
Although Updike’s story – originally published in an October 1960 issue of The New Yorker – is not so much a homage to Fenway Park or the Red Sox as it is a paean to Ted Williams, who hit a home run in the last at-bat of his 21-year career. Updike, 28, was among the only 10,455 fans that turned up to say goodbye to Williams, and the story still holds up as a reminder of the essential part of all good journalism: being in the right place at the right time.
Still for pure baseball nostalgia, nothing beats Shoeless Joe, WP Kinsella’s fictional story of building a baseball field in the midst of his corn farm in Iowa, and probably better known for its film adaptation, Field of Dreams. The field becomes a conduit to the spirits of baseball legends – the magic realism behind the “build it and they’ll come”, which these days tends to mean if you build something people will come to use it and usually pay for it too.
Which brings me back to Belfield. The location of the new athletes track on the opposite side of the UCD campus at Clonskeagh, in what is now the designated sporting-zone, should not make any difference to the success of it, nor naturally the access. The fact it’s being built as an IAAF-approved competition track will also help ensure maximum use, particularly given the lack of any other suitable venue in that part of south county Dublin.
The new track, like the old one, also needs to act as more than just an elite sporting facility. James Nolan, athletics co-ordinator for UCD, already made that point when reflecting on the old track: “The thing about the UCD track, and anyone would tell you this, is that it was the best training track around, there was a lovely vibe to the place, and athletes were always supportive of each other, no matter what club.
“It’s not just about UCD AC. UCD is a hub, with people who run for Ireland, compete for other clubs outside of here. And of the students here, maybe 24,000 are in the age bracket that Athletics Ireland wants to be focusing in on. I’ve looked up the stats, and Galway city only has 9,000-10,000 people within that age bracket, 18-25, and that’s a city. So UCD is a massive city, really, a massive area for athletics which isn’t being tapped into.”
Nolan ran for Ireland in the 1,500m at both the Sydney 2000 Olympics and Athens 2004, while representing UCD Athletics Club. There will always be some mystery about the number of UCD athletes that might have lost out on reaching their full potential while the track remained closed, even if they did well to get three qualifiers for Rio in Mark English, Ciara Mageean and Ciara Everard.
The wider lesson in all of this is that sporting venues are not so much reliant on nostalgia as they are on location. And not just running tracks. The college campus shouldn’t be underestimated as prime sporting real estate and the athletics track at Belfield was always proof of that. Build it and they’ll come. Just be careful where you build it.