The UCD athletics track has been out of commission since November 2011. Conall Cahill investigates why this is, and what memories of the track still remain.
THE story of the UCD athletics track is not a new one. Bringing the tale of the digging up by UCD of the track five years ago and the presence, in its place, of a stony car park (beside the Belfield Bike Shop) is not a novel concept.
With each passing year and each new wave of students that come into the university the memory of the track fades among the UCD populous. Yet its legacy still lingers in the countless casual, club and elite athletes for whom the track possesses such fond memories. It would be a disservice not to attempt to maintain discussion surrounding the topic of the track and its noted absence from the athletics scene.
It was the 22nd November, 2011 and all seemed to be ticking along smoothly for the UCD Athletics Club. That evening, the club’s sprinters were due to meet up at the track to put in a session, while the next morning the hammer throwers were booked in to use the facility. But suddenly, unexpectedly, diggers would move onto the track early in the morning and begin the process of tearing it up. At the time, speaking to Dave Hooper of Dublin City FM, UCD AC Captain Richard Owens outlined what had happened:
“I was called into a meeting yesterday morning at eleven. I was sworn to secrecy. Every student in UCD was sent an email at half eleven and from then on signs went up (at the track), fences went up, and we thought, ‘This is the start of the campaign to save it’…but at seven this morning they started to tear it up. To be given twenty-one hours notice, we just feel so let down. We’re just shocked. We’re all speechless. We just don’t know what to do.”
The reason for the tearing up of the UCD track was communicated to UCD students by the Vice-President for Students, Martin Butler:
“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.”
“To be given twenty-one hours notice, we just feel so let down. We’re just shocked. We’re all speechless.”
An insurance report into the track had also labelled it “dangerous”, and UCD Director of Sport Brian Mullins told the Observer that it had been the subject of a number of legal claims as a result of accidents on the track. Nevertheless, the reaction to the closing of the track was one of shock and outrage from the local athletics community and the college’s athletics club. Athletes like David Gillick and Sonia O’Sullivan voiced their displeasure at the closing of the track and a “Save The Track” campaign was commenced by UCD AC, garnering over 3000 signatures.
James Nolan – who competed for Ireland at the Sydney Olympics while a UCD student and currently coaches the UCD AC distance runners – admits that, at the time, the track’s closing was a massive blow. Nolan trained at the college on a scholarship under the stewardship of the late Noel Carroll, the UCD coach at Nolan’s time and a much loved figure in the Irish athletics scene:
“I know he (Carroll) would have been, if he was alive at the time, he would have been devastated. The club was devastated. It was very difficult. At the time it was a real positive group of guys knocking around, we were starting to win titles. The week before we had won the road relay title for the first time in fifteen years and as things were starting to build it was just a kick at the wrong time, unfortunately.”
Nolan expresses a fondness for the old track that stems out of “summer mornings with Noel Carroll, myself, Dave Matthews (fellow Olympian), Nigel Brunton (now a lecturer in the School of Agriculture), Antoine Burke (World Junior silver medallist)… there was a great group of us there and just meeting down there on a Saturday morning in the summertime.”
“What I liked about it personally was that you’d walk down on a Saturday morning and at some stage there’d be one hundred to two hundred people training there, all different levels (of ability). And it was a really helpful, positive environment… Dundrum South Dublin, UCD, Blackrock… all the different athletics clubs used to congregate there on a Saturday morning.”
Nolan does specify that an athletics track would help create more “team cohesion” within the club – as a meeting point of sorts, a “home for athletics.” However, he points out that three UCD athletes – Ciara Everard, Ciara Mageean and Mark English – represented Ireland at the Olympic Games in Rio this summer.
He also highlights the creation of the much-used trail around the UCD campus that is used (as well as Deer Park and the hill beside it) by the university’s distance runners for training. That, as well as the recently developed sports centre in UCD and the college’s extensive Ad Astra sports scholarship programme, is something that Nolan is keen to emphasise. He stresses that UCD remains “a wonderful place for athletics” and that the athletics club “hasn’t struggled” in the absence of the track. Nolan continues to say that he is hopeful that at some stage in the future, UCD will have its own track once again, under the stewardship of UCD Campus Development project co-ordinator Dominic O’Keeffe.
At the time of printing, O’Keefe had not yet responded to requests for comment. However, according to UCD Director of Sport Brian Mullins, the building of an athletics track is unlikely to happen in the near future. Mullins acknowledged that due to the same financial limits that existed five years ago (the cost of developing the track was quoted to be €1.6 million), there is unlikely to be an athletics track built in UCD at any stage over the coming years. This is despite the stated proposal within the UCD Campus Development plan, available for perusal on the UCD website, that “the athletics track be relocated to the western side of the Campus in the vicinity of the Sports Centre.”
One of the “short-term objectives” listed under the plan for the years 2005-2010 is that a track would be built “adjacent to the Sports Centre to replace the existing track adjacent to Belfield House which has reached the end of its useful life”. This would perhaps suggest that the removal of the track and plans for the replacement of the facility on campus had been in the pipeline long before 2011.
Nevertheless Mullins made it clear that with athletics being a “minority sport” – less popular than soccer or GAA, for example – and with the track low down on the list of priorities regarding development projects on campus, it will be a while before we see UCD singlets gracing a Belfield track once more. It should be highlighted, however, that UCD has paid for its athletes to travel to the athletics track at Irishtown in order to train in the absence of a track on campus – something UCD AC were keen to express gratitude for.
“You’d walk down on a Saturday morning and at some stage there’d be one hundred to two hundred people training there, all different levels (of ability).”
At the time of the track’s destruction, a working group including former 5000m World Champion and now Senator Eamonn Coghlan, was established by UCD in order to try to address the issues and concerns raised by the track’s destruction.
The Observer understands that this ‘task force’ has only met twice, and not since 2013. Mullins puts the group’s disintegration down to a realisation of the futility of any conclusions given the financial restrictions on any potential future development of a new track.
It is clear that the track at Belfield was precious to many. It was the site of friendships, rivalries, healthy competition and sporting greatness. It was where, perhaps most famously, Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan, Frank O’Mara and Ray Flynn set the world record for the four by one mile relay in 1985. It carried for years the sound of laughter, cheering, footsteps and the heavy breathing of athletes in the prime of their careers. In the wake of its closure, their echoes were drowned out by the belligerent roar of machinery – and now, perhaps even worse, the ceaseless daytime hum of car engines and the roaring evening silence of a vacuous wasteland that was once so great.