Digging up our Belfield of dreams

They’re tearing up what was once the best track in Europe – with no sign of a replacement

In the 25 years since tearing around the final bend of the track and then somehow snatching the bronze medal nothing else has come close. There are more important things in life than getting to stand on the medal podium at the Irish Schools Track and Field Championships, but not in that moment there wasn’t.

Because Belfield on that first Saturday in June was our Olympic arena, and even if precious few of us went on to compete in the real thing, for that one afternoon we all shared the same gleeful and innocent dream. We were the future of Irish athletics. This was our blossoming prime. Our only limits were the limits of our imagination, and when you’re 17 years old, dipping under four minutes for 1,500 metres feels just like dipping under four minutes for the mile.

With dreams like that began all sorts of possibilities, and nowhere are more possibilities still dreamed up than at the Irish Schools Championships.

They have since moved on to a different home and Tullamore will this afternoon play host to several hundred young athletes from all across the country. After nine hours of non-stop running, jumping and throwing, across the 106 events, everything will be perfectly divided out between talent and hard work.


Still while in some ways running in Belfield back in 1989 will always feel like yesterday, yesterday it somehow felt impossibly far away. Because the image yesterday wasn’t of a young runner tearing around the final bend, but of diggers tearing up what remains of the track and field itself.

After two and a half years of abandonment and sorry neglect this looked like the last sad farewell to a very special piece of Irish sporting infrastructure.

The Belfield track hasn’t been completely idle since November of 2011, when UCD suddenly declared it “closed due to health and safety concerns”: it has been used to store steel crates of bricks and building materials for the various construction projects around the campus, although with several half-filled trenches across the track, it certainly wasn’t safe for running any longer.

It did also stage the UCD Ball, in May of 2012, around the same time some Irish athletes might have made better use of the track when training for the London Olympics.

Exactly why UCD closed it off is still a source of dispute, if not disgust, among the large section of the Irish athletics community who owed so many dreams to the Belfield track, since it was first laid there, as grass, back in the 1950s, and then fantastically modernised in 1974.

Because in many ways Belfield was more than just a running track: it nursed and encouraged countless junior athletes over the years, and during the long summer evenings became not just a wonderful training venue but a sort of social haven, where runners of all ages and standards would share thoughts and sometimes wild ambitions.

That it also served the largest student body in the country, at one stage under the guidance of the late, great running guru Noel Carroll, merely underlined its clear and vital importance.

The problem then, according to UCD’s “health and safety concerns”, was the track was becoming “slippery when wet”, which, while the same could actually be said about most sporting surfaces in the country, was actually due to the lack of any maintenance, or simple cleaning.

The great shame is the Belfield track was once the finest in Europe, the first tartan surface in Ireland, and of world-record quality, too. In 1985, when hosting a special athletics meeting for the charity GOAL, Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan, Frank O’Mara and Ray Flynn tore up the Belfield track in the superlative sense when setting a 4 x one-mile relay world record of 15:49.08, which still stands.

Yesterday, the entire grass infield and what is left of the torn and tattered tartan track was being stripped away, with the entire site apparently being primed for a development of some sort.

When the track was closed off in 2011, UCD also announced an alternative site had been agreed for a replacement six-lane track, at the Clonskeagh end of the campus, where the majority of UCD’s other sporting facilities are now positioned. Indeed planning permission was granted for this development back in 2009, but that never got out of the starting blocks.

So, what could the powers within UCD sport be thinking by clearing out what is left of the old track when there is no sign of the new one?

I rang Brian Mullins, UCD’s director of sport, who answered with a courteous hello, then a slightly bemused silence.

“I don’t know anything about that,” he told me, when asked what was going on with the old Belfield track. Or the new Belfield track?

“Well there is still a funding deficit there,” said Mullins. “I don’t have €1 million, and I don’t know if you have €1 million either.”

With that Mullins suggested to call him back next week.

There are more pressing building issues in this country right now, although at that moment, I couldn’t think of a more shameful one.