This morning on my usual Saturday morning spin around the UCD campus at Belfield, I briefly stopped at the former track, now looking like a makeshift builder’s yard.
It is heart-breaking. Here is where thousands of us got our first taste of athletics. We trained, we competed, we made friends and although we all grew older, we never quite moved away. The weekly runs around “the trail” – a 6km loop around the grounds – became embedded in our lives.
When the next generation came along, we proudly introduced them to our favourite place. Little ones would crawl in and around the hurdles, make sand castles in the long jump pit, and paddle in the steeplechase water. Later they would attempt to use them as intended – my niece, always fascinated by the hurdles, came third in the East Leinsters recently.
Runners passing might stop at the track and ask could they try throwing a javelin or leaping over a steeplechase jump (brave people!). I know of two people at least now training and competing in the field events who started out by doing exactly that. Marathon running isn’t for everyone!
Serious training also went on at the track, with the UCD scholarship students getting top priority and clubs such as Dundrum South Dublin, the Leinster rugby team, Tennis Ireland’s development squad, and the Irish Olympic pentathlon squad (based in UCD) all among the “regulars”.
There were never any problems. Perhaps because we all knew we were there on sufferance, we looked out for each other, checking that we weren’t getting in each others way, sharing “lanes”, the javelin run-ups, the shot circles and the hammer and discus “cages”.
You know what happened next. In late 2011, the UCD authorities deliberately dug holes in the track so that we couldn’t use it. Field eventers were chased away by the security men, even though they weren’t using the track.
A protest campaign began; thousands of people signed a petition. The result? Big yawns all round. Under local bye-laws for the area, no sports facility – even one in private hands – can be closed down unless a replacement facility has been provided. Did any one care? No. Politicians (including Ruairi Quinn, an ex-UCD athlete) blithely told us not to panic; that we could apply for a grant to build a new track – indeed that such a track was part of UCD’s “Gateway” project.
Now riddle me this: in what particular universe does it make economic sense to build a new track at an estimated cost of €1.5m when refurbishing the old one would cost as little as €100,000?
Athletics Ireland: why did you stand by and let this happen? With the Irishtown track, already vastly over-used, about to shut down for repairs, Dublin southside clubs have no-where to go.
Young athletes, their parents and coaches now have to drive to Tallaght, Santry or Greystones if they are to train. Hammer throwers, who were the most regulars of regulars at Belfield, have the choice of Santry or Greystones. “They cut off my right arm when they shut down that track,” said one of our most distinguished throws coaches to me recently.
Athletics is at an all-time high at the moment because it is the original cheap and cheerful sport. Clubs are bursting at the seams with new and enthusiastic members. Among them is UCD’s own athletics club, with members including Ciara Mageean and Ciara Everard – and many others who, like me, are never going to be stars, but who with luck will have a long and happy life in sport. Where are they to go?
It is not too late. The foundations of the track at Belfield are still sound; all that’s needed is a new surface. Let the campaign to bring Belfield back as the best training track in the country begin now!