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Posted: April 8, 2003

Athletics: Frustrated runners chase indoor training facility

Martin Cleary - The Ottawa Citizen

Monday, March 10, 2003

When Ken Parker surveys the Ottawa sports landscape, he sees a wealth of venues -- almost 50 hockey arenas, more than 80 community centres, and hundreds of soccer/football fields and gymnasiums.

But all Parker, one of the leaders of athletics in Ottawa for the past three decades, and the rest of the prosperous track and field community really want is one permanent indoor training venue for the six unforgiving winter months.

The 30-year dream for an indoor training venue looked encouraging 13 months ago, when a feasibility study was unanimously accepted by the city's health, recreation and social services committee. Today, the idea is dead, the victim of the city new public-private partnership program, which is focused on developing as many as four ice rinks.

"I think it has been taken out behind the barn and got it between the eyes," said a frustrated Parker, who learned the $26-million multisport development and training venue was shelved when he telephoned a city official.

What longtime athletics leader Ken Parker and the Ottawa track and field community want is one permanent indoor training venue to shelter runners from six unforgiving winter months
What longtime athletics leader Ken Parker and the Ottawa track and field community want is one permanent indoor training venue to shelter runners from six unforgiving winter months
CREDIT: Bruno Schlumberger, The Ottawa Citizen

Parker, who started the Ottawa Athletic Club Racing Team in 1981, is fortunate because his 20 female runners train on the 125-metre indoor track at the OAC. But his passion for track and field covers a broad area.

"To me, it's a question of balance and fairness," said Parker, whose company Sirius Consulting Group sponsors minor hockey and basketball teams, a cross-country ski race, and Olympic triathlete Sharon Donnelly. "They want more facilities and we want one."

The committee approved the feasibility study on Feb. 7, 2002 and asked staff for a business plan, making it one of about 10 public-private partnership projects on the long list.

"When we left the meeting, the train was moving slowly, but it was on the tracks with the support of the mayor's office," Parker said. "Then there were the sounds of silence there after."

The ice rinks will be funded from the city's five-year capital budget.

"This program could be expanded in subsequent years to include other projects of which the sports development and training facility could be one," according to a city update.

The decision sent shock waves through the track and field community, which has one of the top three programs in Canada at the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club.

The timing is particularly interesting, since Lions athletes couldn't train at the old Coliseum building in Lansdowne Park the past two weeks because of a trade show.

Training ends this week at the Coliseum and its future remains up in the air for the 2003-04 season. Ottawa track and field athletes trained in the Coliseum 30 years ago, as well as a variety of inadequate spots in between.

Carleton University recently opened a domed indoor fieldhouse with a narrow odd-shaped 220-metre track. But it's designed for joggers and not high-performance athletes.

As many as 250 Lions athletes will be without a training site until the snow melts and the track opens at the Terry Fox Athletic Facility. Distance runners Sarah Dillabaugh and Julia Hicks will spend most of the month, before they represent Canada at the world cross country running championships March 29-30 in Lausanne, Switzerland, training in the cold and on snowy Ottawa streets.

"We're disappointed and upset," said Lions executive director Melissa Jones. "Track and field is the basis for all sports -- running, jumping and throwing."

The sports development and training facility was designed as much to serve community recreational interests as it was to aid top athletes from many sports in many ways, said Dennis Ferris, the co-chair of the Ottawa Indoor Sporting Co-operative.

"I'm not all that surprised with the city budget," said a disappointed Ferris. "But in the sports world, it has put the city back another 20 years."

There are more than 20 200-metre indoor track and field venues in Canada. The nearest are located in Petawawa, and Canton, New York, where there are two.

"The community at large has lost something," added Ferris, who invested countless hours into the study. "It goes well beyond the elite athlete, who would have used it only 10 to 15 per cent of the time."

But all hope may not be lost. The Lions have established a committee of directors and coaches to keep the idea alive. Parker would like to see a public-private venture to build a $3-million to $4-million domed structure dedicated to track and field.

The Lions also have talked to Doug Cross, the partnership director of the $43-million Integrated Academic Athletic Complex, which was planned for land beside Cairine Wilson Secondary School. It would house four hockey rinks, a six-lane track, indoor soccer field and four gymnasiums. The complex also didn't make the city's public-private partnership short list.

"The results have worn me out," he said. "Someone would have to sit me down in a padded room and convince me to do it again."

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