Brand new track represents fresh era for UCD athletics

Almost 11 years after the original Belfield track was deemed unsafe and turned into a car park, a new chapter opens in UCD athletics history

The first track record probably won’t last long, which is a good thing, because this one is all about the present and future generations to come, even if invariably compared to the past. If only for now.

It’s been a long time coming too – almost 11 years exactly since the original site was deemed unsafe and in need of urgent repair, then ripped up in parts to serve as a car park, the eight bright lanes and green infield of the new athletics track at University College Dublin (UCD) was formally declared open on Wednesday afternoon.

That included a sort of test run over 800 metres, featuring some of the finest UCD athletes of the present and past, and let’s just say they finished well outside two minutes. There will be far faster track records to come.

It’s also almost five years now since an anonymous donation of €3 million was given to UCD, in January 2018, for the sole purpose of building the new track and then maintaining it for the next 20 years – essentially taking the project off life support when it seemed destined to die a slow death.


In November 2011, the old track on the Belfield side of the campus was sitting in its own shallow grave, turned in part into a staff parking facility, the lack of funding cited for its neglect, even while the rest of UCD was being built up around it.

The fabled reconstruction is now complete, better suited to the sporting end of campus, fully floodlight too ensuring use throughout the seasons, and certainly not exclusive to UCD athletes.

“It feels very good,” says James Nolan, UCD graduate and two-time Irish Olympian, and currently UCD Athletics Officer.

“I was expecting it to be quite soft, with the double sandwich layer tartan, but it feels really good, we’ve our first session tomorrow night, very much looking forward to that. This really is the final piece in the jigsaw for UCD athletics.”

Among those immediately set to benefit is Israel Olatunde, now Ireland’s fastest man, just starting his final year of computer science at UCD; also Luke McCann, who this year broke the Irish 1,000m-record indoors and out, Sarah Healy, who broke the Irish under-23 1,500m record, plus Darragh McElhinney, Under-23 silver medal winner at the European cross-country last December.

Ireland’s silver and bronze medal winners at the European Championships in Munich last month, Ciara Mageean and Mark English, are both former UCD AC athletes, Nolan pointing to the already showering impact of the new track.

“The UCD (AC) membership is already doubled on last year, from under 200 to over 400, plus the online sign up which only finished on Friday. We’ve also seen increased interest from staff and alumni, and this is about increasing participation across the board, which also drives performance. And for athletes like Israel and Sarah there’s nothing missing here now.

“We can build while offering what the athlete needs, because we have everything we need here now, and a very individualised programme compared say to America.”

It’s finished some three years later than originally planned, and over a decade since the original track was suddenly closed in November 2011 due to health and safety concerns, such was the deterioration of the running and jumping surface.

The entire site comprises of 3.73 hectares located at the Sports Precinct of UCD, at the Richview/Clonskeagh end of the campus, the track laid as a double-rubber sandwich foundation, more suitable to training and long-term use rather than the Mondo brand (favoured by the more strictly competitive tracks).

There will be some hard records to follow, the original track still famous for the 4xmile world record of 15:49.08 set in 1985 by Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan, Frank O’Mara and Ray Flynn, a world record which still stands.

Everything about the site now suggesting it’s been worth the wait: “It has been a long process,” explains Dominic O’Keeffe, UCD director of student services and facilities, “from engaging with the anonymous donor to start off, getting planning permission and going to tender, then getting into the construction phase, before we were twice shut down during Covid, so all in all maybe three-and-a-half, four years on this project.

“But it is an institutional piece, for the university and for south county Dublin itself. It’s in a super location, and we’d hope it will be still here in 50 years’ time. Hopefully we can breed some new champions of Irish athletics here, it creates a huge opportunity for the club here.

“We’ve relationships open already with other clubs in south county Dublin, who may want to use the track, and we’d encourage Athletics Ireland to get involved as well, to use the place as a training camp, because all the pieces are in place here now, with the swimming pool, the rehab, the medicine, the catering. It’s by no means exclusive to UCD, we’re open to any club in the area, of course a competition venue as well”

Immediate access won’t be open to the public, schools however can also make use of the facility. Finbarr McAuley, president of UCD Athletics Club, also spoke fondly of the original grass track from the early 1960s, “and the enormous commitment the university has shown to the development of athletics infrastructure over the decades, when it played an instrumental role in the development of state-of-the-art facilities.”

Professor Mark Rogers, UCD Acting President, also pointed to those dark days when the campus was left without a running track, saying “we can all recall the pictures of the digger on the old track, not our finest hour in communications and engagement.

“But it demonstrated the importance of the physical track to generations of students, graduates and athletes. And on behalf of every runner, thrower, jumper who will step onto this track, I thank our donor for this extraordinary gift, and for placing your trust in our vision to transform lives and strengthen community.”

Which is indeed a good thing.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics