Room for improvement as National Sports Campus still wanting an indoor arena

Proven results show existing facilities already bearing fruit but stalling again is not good option


You know the times are changing when Bob Dylan is about to appear in not one but two Super Bowl ads tomorrow night, and only God knows now what Pete Seeger thinks of it all. The order is indeed rapidly fading.

That’s not saying the Government can’t still lend a hand. The last thing any department needs is a modest word of approval, especially from the likes of me. They’re all perfectly capable of doing that for themselves. But driving into the National Sports Campus at Abbotstown last Monday morning – a mere 40-minute spin from the roof of the Wicklow Mountains – the sense of some proper achievement was hard to ignore.

It’s still only the shell of a project, still without all the juicy nutritious bits, but once it does start to feed into Irish sport it’s the critics who may have to stand aside. Monday was about opening the latest phase – 12 mini synthetic playing pitches, complete with floodlights and a small pavilion, costing €3.6 million – with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Leo Varadkar, doing the honours. The GAA, FAI, and IRFU have all bought up their plots already too, and it shouldn’t be long before the entire 500-acre campus will be live and loud, seven days a week.

What Varadkar deliberately emphasised was the readiness to begin work on the National Indoor Arena – designed to be the centrepiece of the campus, and which he described as “the missing keystone in the Irish sporting infrastructure”.

Political agenda
This was no overstatement: it’s only been on the political agenda for the last 27 years, punctured by one failed attempt after the other. It’s a case now of better late than never, because for too long it looked a whole series of Governments would never get around to it.

So, not surprisingly, somebody else actually got there first, with the opening this time last year of the six-lane, IAAF-standard, beautifully-finished indoor track at the Athlone Institute of Technology. Eamonn Coghlan, a man who knows a lot about indoor running, described that as “the most historic day in Irish athletics”, while the man deserving the credit was Ciarán Ó Catháin, president of Athlone IT, and also now president of Athletics Ireland.

It’s no coincidence that in its first season of existence, the Athlone IT track helped inspire a depth and range of Irish indoor performances never before witnessed – and its second season already looks set to beat that again. Last weekend opening’s competitions in Athlone – at junior, under-23 and masters level – certainly didn’t disappoint, one of the headline runs coming from 18-year-old Keith Doherty, who lowered the junior men’s 60 metres record to 6.88 seconds.

It’s not just that Doherty hails from Tallaght, an area suddenly emerging as one of the hotbeds of Irish athletics, but that he credits his breakthrough this season to his decision to abandon Gaelic football and focus entirely on his sprinting.

Indeed the Athlone track is also inspiring some famous Gaelic footballers back in the other direction: last Saturday’s masters championships featured an impressive victory in the men’s 50-55 age category by Mickey Linden, Down’s two-time All-Ireland winner, in 1991 and 1994.

Qualifying mark
There’s even more serious competition in Athlone tomorrow, at the Athletics Ireland Indoor Games, this time with athletes chasing qualifying standards for next month’s World Indoor Championships, in Sopot, Poland. Roll up Mark English, who unless he takes a wrong turn, should run under 1:47.0 for the 800 metres and with that book his selection for Sopot. Ciara Everard, his team mate at UCD AC, is also looking for a qualifying mark in the same event.

What is now certain is that with an allocation of €13 million, agreed at last year’s budget, there is no excuse for not starting on another indoor track at the National Sports Campus. While €13 million mightn’t be enough to finish it, Varadkar needs to ensure that first sod is turned before the end of this year, even if there are some tricky European tendering laws to cope with. Then, there’ll be no excuse to back off until completion.

Varadkar may not have history on his side. In 1987, then Taoiseach Charles Haughey also promised an indoor arena, and after a feasibility study costing over one million of our dear old punts, approved a site in the Dublin docklands. That never happened. In 1999, Jim McDaid, then Minister for Sport, also unveiled plans for an indoor arena adjacent to the athletics stadium in Santry. No stone was turned. In 2004 another Minister for Sport, John O’Donoghue, also approved an indoor arena, for this same site Abbotstown, then let things drag on long enough for the economy to bite the whole thing off.

Now, the line is drawn, and it’s not so much that the chance won’t come again, but that the National Sports Campus has never looked better primed for its keystone.

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