Setting foot in the new national athletics indoor arena in Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT) on Tuesday night reminded me of the first day of term on a college campus — an unbridled and innocent energy full of hopes and dreams.
An indoor arena in Ireland has been promised since the late 70s — a time when Eamon Coghlan presided as ‘Chairman of the Boards’ selling out indoor arenas across North America. The likelihood of a world class indoor arena in Ireland was about as plausible as Lenny and George getting their white picket fence and colony of rabbits in John Steinbeck’s classic novel Of Mice and Men.
“The best laid schemes of mice and men, Often go awry,” is the famous line which had been prophetic in Irish athletics until AIT president Ciarán Ó Catháin, and now also president of Athletics Ireland, got the go ahead for the €10m world class facility.
I travelled down on Tuesday night for a test event on the new track in a car full of athletes eager to lace up their spikes and avoid sitting in the middle of the back seat for the journey down. The test event was a match between AIT and DCU, a precursor to the inaugural events this weekend — the Irish Combined events on Saturday and the AAI Games on Sunday.
Stepping in through the glass doors there was a visible sense of excitement from those lucky enough to be invited. Walking up the angled ramp to the pristine 200m six-lane, blue-banked track, with the back wall clothed in glass, gives the arena a sense of atmosphere to rival those in Lisbon, Birmingham and Istanbul.
Last year at the World Indoors in Turkey, I saw they had a blue banked track but it lacked the sense of architecture and impact you first get when walking into the international AIT arena. Mo Farah was one of the competitors on that occasion and it isn’t hard to imagine him and host of other stars setting foot in the Midlands.
The aesthetics made an immediate impact but what about the quality of the mondo surface? The main event of the night was the 1500m with AIT scholarship athlete John Travers targeting a fast time over the metric mile. Having made a niche for myself (and a few euro) in recent times as pacemaker, I was invited down to lead out the small elite field that included Eoin Everard and Joe Warne of DCU through 800m in under two minutes.
I was feeling suitably warmed up, having shaken off my track rustiness earlier in the night running the 200m and the 60m in a vain attempt to keep up with Ireland’s best sprinters, including Clonliffe’s Brian Gregan.
Running indoors requires more concentration, with each lap 200m in length with tight banked bends. Coghlan describes indoor running as a sling shot generating speed around the bends and letting loose down the straights.
With a small but knowledgeable crowd including sub four-minute milers Enda Fitzpatrick and European Indoor medallist James Nolan in attendance, the pressure was on to produce.
Passing through 800m in just under two minutes, I could feel some eager feet on my heels. The 900m mark and the start/finish line was going to be my limit at the required pace.
Easing myself to the side, John Travers shot past me on the bend and stormed home in 3:42.53 — an Irish record and inside the qualifying standard for the European Indoor Championships and European U23 Track & Field Championships next summer.
The question had been answered — the aesthetics of the facility was matched with a quality surface, with Eamonn Coghlan saying that Travers’ performance showed “that the proof was in the pudding”.
At the media launch yesterday, Coghlan added: “In 1979, they were talking about building an indoor arena so that Coghlan could break the indoor mile record. Unfortunately that didn’t happen but there is a possibility the world mile indoor record could be rewritten on this track in the future.”
James Nolan, runner up over 1500m at the European Indoor Championships in 2000, specialised running indoors for 15 years and echoed Coghlan.
“All athletes care about is times. Every repetition the athletes ran was faster than they would have run on any other track. It’s a world class track and compares with any in the world,” said Nolan.
It was Ciarán Ó Catháin’s best laid plan to create a world class facility in Ireland. He felt the main observation on Tuesday night was made by his wife. “She said that young and old alike walked in opened mouthed as if they had come into EuroDisney.”
AIT’s new international indoor arena may not have a white picket fence or a colony of rabbits but promises to rewrite Irish athletics from the children in the community games right up to the international stars and beyond. What more can AIT say: Grow old with me the best is yet to be.