Irish athletics mourns the passing of Seán Naughton

The Nenagh native was the driving force behind the construction of the first indoor track in this country.
Irish athletics mourns the passing of Seán Naughton

Sean Naughton

For those in Irish athletics, his legacy will live forever. Seán Naughton’s involvement in the sport spanned many areas across the seven decades he was entrenched in it – athlete, coach, official, administrator – but if there’s one thing the Nenagh native will be remembered for, it’s doing what so many others couldn’t and building the first indoor track in this country.

Following a long battle with lung cancer, the 88-year-old passed away peacefully at his home in Nenagh, just down the road from the indoor arena with which he became synonymous. As phone calls and text messages spread news of his passing on Friday morning, those in Irish athletics came to terms with the kind of void that’s become increasingly difficult to fill – that of the lifelong volunteer who gave so much to the sport and asked for nothing in return.

In his youth, Naughton had been a promising sprinter, clocking a personal best of 9.8 seconds for the 100-yard dash, and he was one of the founding members of Nenagh Olympic AC in 1955. In 1972 he started Community Games in Nenagh, which attracted a wealth of young talent to the sport in the decades that followed.

Over time, the orange singlet of Nenagh Olympic became a familiar sight on podiums at national level, with Naughton and a small but rigorously motivated crew building it into a powerhouse club.

For many years, their main winter training facility was the original North Tipperary Agricultural Show Hall, which was first rented for use by athletes in 1956. In the mid-1980s the club committee, with Naughton as its driving force, developed the facilities further, with a banked tartan track – the first of its kind in Ireland – installed in 1990.

For 23 years, until Athlone IT built its world-class indoor facility, Nenagh was the only year-round indoor track in Ireland. While politicians huffed and puffed with empty promises about building an alternative in the 1990s and 2000s, Nenagh was always there, giving Irish athletes, from kids to seasoned Olympians, a venue to compete in during the coldest months of the year.

Naughton, too, was always there, in his long black jacket, circling the stadium with its cramped walkways and cold, wooden seats. Many athletes used to refer to it as a “cowshed”, shivering away in multiple layers before they began their warm-ups, but it was still so much better than the alternative – which was no track at all.

The surface was also undeniably fast, and the cramped space meant spectators were wedged close to the outside lane, which left competing athletes experiencing a raucous atmosphere as they whipped around its tight, banked turns.

Naughton was always the stadium’s biggest defender, and he continued to scour for investment in the years after its opening to upscale its facilities, saying they had built it for “half-nothing because so many local and Tipperary people gave their time and labour free”.

Of course, Naughton’s influence in the sport went far beyond that facility. He was part of the team management for multiple international championships across many decades, serving as team coach at the 1987 World Indoors in Indianapolis, where Marcus O’Sullivan and Frank O’Mara won gold, and at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

In 2009 he was recognised by Athletics Ireland with a lifetime achievement award, and in 2014 he was among those honoured at the National Volunteer in Sport Awards. “At 81 years of age, Sean remains active in athletics and can regularly be seen in the indoor stadium mentoring, encouraging and coaching young athletes and coaches alike,” said Michael Ring, Minister for Tourism and Sport, at that function.

Naughton himself was surprised to receive that award. “I have played many sports over the years,” he said. “But without a doubt athletics is the greatest sport of all.” Throughout his life, he stayed true to that belief – from his early days as a sprinter to his many decades serving the sport as a coach and administrator.

Naughton was a visionary who saw the potential in his very own field of dreams, who moved heaven and earth to get it built, aware that the athletes from across the country would inevitably come. Over the years tens of thousands of them did, each of them forging memories in that stadium that would last a lifetime, most of them unaware of the man who’d helped to make it all a reality.

“Sean lived and died less than 100 metres from his beloved indoor arena, which came about mainly because of his vision and drive,” wrote a statement by Nenagh Olympic this morning. “His likes are once in a generation, but he can rest in peace knowing that his legacy is in good hands.”

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