Anonymous donor saves the UCD Athletics track from life-support

The fate of the UCD Athletics track is finally looking up, and with it, the future of athletics in UCD and Ireland as a whole.

When the original Belfield track was closed in 2011, amidst health and safety fears and partially converted to provide more parking in 2014, there were many who feared that there would be no replacement to the tartan track. Amber Hayes, current Ladies Captain, admits that “it has been an extremely long and painful process. I think everyone knows that it has been a long time coming. Football and rugby players wouldn't be able to play without a pitch, so you can imagine how tough it has been for the athletic committees over the last 8 years trying to organise trainings.”

Starved of funding until an anonymous donation of €3 million last year, UCD athletes were consigned and resigned, to training off campus in Ringsend at Irishtown Stadium. This donor, who has determinedly remained in the shadows, has revived a project that had rested far too long on the back burners. In rejecting UCD’s application for a grant of €864,500 for a new track in 2012, the Department of Tourism and Sport noted (in documents procured by the College Tribune) that the project was “well within the scope for [UCD] to complete without’ the grant, due to €100 million of funding available to UCD at the time. This, along with UCD’s decision to close the old track without making any provision for a new one, indicates that the track was a victim of trademark UMT ‘long-fingering’ and indifference.”

Although the donation was made public in late January last year, Hayes confirmed that the club was not directly contacted regarding it until April 2018. That same month, they were dispirited upon attending a sports development meeting and “not getting track questions answered”, this “whilst hearing rumours about the track here and there”.

Therefore, on 25th October 2018 the club was delighted to be invited to participate in a student consultative workshop related to the build process of the new running track. Those in attendance included Hayes, Eamonn Murphy (Mens Captain), David Heffernan (Sprints Captain), the heads of UCD Sport, Dominic O’Keefe (Head of Student Services), architects, designers and 3 former Athletic Club members (Ellie Hartnett, Richard Owes and Claire Mooney). Their involvement, at every level, is essential as, according to Hayes, “we’re the people who actually need and will benefit from the track.”

It was a fruitful meeting. Dominic O’Keefe commented that the groups “input and vision as a sub-group initiated the design & planning phase of the project.” Hayes was ecstatic to see, and be involved in, the progress being made, commenting “it was great to finally see an architectures plan and layout of our deeply missed track [and] to be able to comment and provide our experiences/concerns with the track.”

Hayes, on behalf of the UCD Athletics Club, wishes to place on record their sincere and heartfelt thanks for the donation. “I hope the donor knows how much this will benefit us and the future [of the club]. It’s all thanks to them. The planning permission may not have happened for another 10+ years if it wasn't for them, so we will be forever in their debt. There has always been lobbying behind the scenes, each committee passed this track duty onto the next. But the reality of it was that there was no money allocated for this until the donor came along. They must have heard the Club’s story. We are so very grateful to them.”

Originally costed at €1.6 million, the sizeable donation indicates the angel donor’s desire to not only physically build the track to IAAF competition standards, but to protect and maintain it in years to come. Speaking in UCD Connections (a UCD alumni magazine), O’Keefe branded it a “legacy project [which is] critical to the new master plan.” This far-seeing approach also reflects the ethos behind the original track. It was opened in 1977, as the first of its kind in Ireland, and survived until the fateful closure in 2011, with the cited health and safety concerns scoffed at by many, who felt that the track was merely suffering from “wear and tear” and was wanting only in investment.

According to both Hayes and UCD Student Services planning permission has been lodged (ahead of schedule), and is currently awaiting approval. After some doubt over its new location, due to UCD’s development of a new master plan for Sport and Recreation, Hayes adds that the track is “to be located in Richview carpark,”with O’Keefe hopeful that the first earth will be turned in early spring. The University is “confident” that the track will be completed for summer 2020.

However, the Athletics club, obviously keen to avoid getting caught up in the euphoria, sounded a note of caution. “They hope to get the track up by 2020, but that is subject to everything going perfectly right. As we found out in October, there are many engineering and architectural issues that have to be addressed.”

“Hopefully I will get to see these foundations before I graduate in September!” Although Hayes may not get her wish, it is plain that the track’s rebuilding will be of huge benefit to future athletes and students, many of whom will have been discouraged in recent years at the lack of facilities. Hayes is hoping that “the track will bring more members to the club, especially sprinters and throwers, as they have been the ones who have been hit hardest without the track.”

The new track has been a long, and doubt-ridden time in the coming. However, there is one thing for certain: with such a generous donation, and with athletes determined to see the project through, it will be a long time in the giving back. It will be a long time in helping UCD and Irish athletics reach new heights.