A few weeks ago, a Health and Safety check deemed the university athletics track unsafe for use and it was closed with immediate effect, with no plans to resurface it and return it to a safe condition. The track was originally opened in October 1996, with the funding required for construction coming from university benefactors, the National Lottery, and North East Fife District Sports Council, among others.
The Athletics and Cross Country Club said in a statement on their social media pages that they were informed of the closure of the track in a meeting with the Athletics Union President, and that “none of the clubs [...] were consulted in the decision” as “only the [Athletics Union] staff made the decision to not repair the track”. They were also informed of plans to redevelop the area into a new 3G astroturf pitch, leaving not only the university, but the town, without a running track. The club says that the AU has suggested groups instead travel to Dundee to use alternative facilities.
This news immediately affected not only university sports societies, including the Athletics and Cross Country Club and Triathlon Club, but also external teams who regularly used the track, such as East Fife Triathlon Club and Fife Athletics Club. The track was also the only facility provided by the AU without having to pay the sports membership fee, which for individuals looking to train but not join a sports club is £195 for this academic year.
“The closure of the track has robbed us of a key part of the club’s atmosphere”, says Athletics and Cross Country Club president Sam Thom. “While there are other tracks there are few members willing to commit 3 hours of their busy lives to go and run on them”. For the club, the track provides a safe space for injured players to train and a way to avoid icy roads in winter.
Club member Katie Norris added: “The removal of the track feels particularly devastating for those who are perhaps new to the sport. I know from first-hand experience that the prospect of interval training is nerve-wracking as a beginner, and can only imagine how [this] must seem now, given the suggested replacement sessions are 3-hour long trips to either Glenrothes or Dundee”.
She worries the removal of the track will put people off from joining, “which will be detrimental not only for this year's members, who are always keen to share their love of running, but also for the years which follow”.
A petition on change.org titled ‘Save Our Track!’ has been circulating the student population and has, at time of writing, garnered nearly 3,000 signatures. It has also been shared on the forum page of the Fife Athletics Club. “We will do everything we can to fight for the track to be repaired and reopened”, Sam promises, but says that, “the lack of notice and consultation with the clubs that use it have left us feeling that Saints Sport and the AU simply do not care about the students they are supposed to represent.”
We reached out to AU president Ailsa Martin, who explained that the wear and tear of the track did constitute a safety risk and that “closure was an appropriate response”. Although the track is a key facility, Ailsa says it is “one of [the] lowest used [...] which we must take into account in this decision making process”. Ailsa did confirm that Saints Sports would be paying for the use of external track facilities by clubs and their travel costs for this academic year, and that more conversations would be had once the track’s future has been decided.
Before a meeting on Thursday 15th September between Saints Sports and Fife AC members, I met with a spokesperson for the latter club, who described to me the impact the loss of the track will have for the wider community. “It was built as a community-university shared resource and over the years it has been used by all manner of people. Sport should be for everybody”. Not only was the track used by affiliated clubs, but by students and locals running by themselves, who “don’t feel confident on the roads, or comfortable at night - why on earth would they take away these safe opportunities for performance, wellbeing, and socialising? It seems awfully wrong.”
“To say they want to upgrade one sport, they have to downgrade another - it’s not how St Andrews should operate. All over the world you get facilities working in tandem with no issue at all - I want them to accept that the two facilities can coexist, it shouldn’t be one or the other”.
I had asked Ailsa whether clubs had been consulted prior to the decision to permanently close the track: “The decision to close the track was made for health and safety reasons. We are currently undergoing a series of consultations regarding the development of facilities at Saints Sport including our sport club committees, Fife AC, Scottish Athletics, East Fife Triathlon and individual users”.
The spokesperson confirmed there has been no consultation with them prior to the decision being made, and expressed their frustration, as “Fife AC have coached the university runners since last century, for free - and then they never discussed the closure with us at all”. They also revealed the figures they had received from UK Athletics as to the cost of repairing or re-laying the track; a temporary fix to make the circuit safe and usable, as had been done previously, would be relatively cheap and provide time to crowdfund for it to be relaid on its existing foundations. They described Saints Sports as demonstrating “a lack of willingness and interest” to find solutions.
The university has frequently prided itself on the quality of its facilities, particularly for sport, and yet recent decisions have highlighted the alarming lack of student consultation on issues pertaining directly to them. With the removal of an essential part of any sports centre, after this academic year many affiliated clubs may be forced to take greater expenses upon themselves in paying for travel or usage costs. This will directly translate to the student population, as those looking to participate would see their membership fee rise at a time of financial strain for all. As pointed out by Sam Thom, students simply cannot afford to take hours out of their busy working schedule to commute to and from far away facilities. The loss of the track will be a loss for a community far bigger than the university.
Image: Isy Platt