Mary Peters track makes £3m comeback
Big-time athletics could return to Northern Ireland in London 2012 Olympic year.
The exciting prospect of seeing top stars like Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and Paula Radcliffe competing here against world class rivals has moved closer to reality with a major sports-friendly decision by Belfast City Council to proceed with a much-needed £3million upgrade of the Mary Peters Track in south Belfast.
The Council initiative will see the 36-year-old track restored to full international standard with the obligatory increase from six lanes to eight.
Plans for a 400-seater grandstand are also included.
That revives the hope of a longed-for re-run of the heady nights of the 80's when thousands flocked to the natural amphitheatre to be thrilled close-up by the biggest names of the day, including Coe and Ovett, John Walker, Ed Moses, Linford Christie, Geoff Capes, Fatima Whitbread, Tessa Saunderson, Kathy Cook, Shirley Strong and, most famously, Zola Budd ahead of her ill-fated 1984 Los Angeles Olympic clash with Mary Decker.
It will also mean better facilities for our home-grown athletes and the many thousands of schoolchildren who take their first tentative running steps on a proper track at the Mary P.
That will be a dream come true second time around for Dame Mary who famously fund-raised for three years in the wake of her 1972 Munich Olympics pentathlon gold to realise her ambition of a top class athletics venue for her beloved Northern Ireland.
Welcoming the news, Dame Mary said: “I'm delighted to learn that Belfast City Council, who run the track, are upgrading it from six lanes to eight.
“This is something I have been very keen to see for some time, the international criteria having moved up to that level in the intervening years since the track was first laid in 1975.
“Although I am now in my 70's and only run for the bus, I wanted the next generation to have something better and the Council are providing the perfect legacy.
“The big names are wonderful to see but as patron of Athletics NI, I love to see our own athletes making progress.”
The project may be in the starting blocks but already it faces a race against time.
Planning permission for the track width extension is currently being sought but for obvious climatic reasons, work can only be carried out during a three-month temperate window some time between next April and September.
With a fair wind, the track could be staging international events again by next autumn but the immediate priority is to secure confirmation of the Peters Track as a venue for the 2013 World Police and Fire Games in Belfast.
That event will attract 10,000 competitors in a multitude of sports, accompanied by an estimated 30,000 visitors from around the world in a 10-day sporting and financial bonanza for the city and its hinterland.
As patron of the Games here, it would be a fitting tribute if Dame Mary were to oversee the hosting of the track and field competition at the venue which bears her name.
For that to happen, a strict timeframe must be met and, to their credit, City councillors and their officials have sensed the urgency to provide international standard facilities for a showpiece event.
To that end, they are working closely with Athletics NI, who manage the track, and have recruited as a consultant Jackie McKernan, Commonwealth discus silver medallist from the 1990 Games in Auckland, New Zealand.