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'People thought it was a joke’: Remembering when Dublin dreamed of hosting the 2016 Olympics

Once upon a time, Dublin officials set their sights on bringing the biggest show on earth to Ireland.

Employers urged to allow flexible working around Olympics Dublin bidding for the Olympic Games became a distinct possibility in the 1990's. Source: David Davies

“HE TOLD US his idea and everybody screamed with laughter.”

It is the response everybody dreads when they pitch a risky idea to a room full of people.

But the idea, put forward by the then-Lord Mayor of Dublin Gay Mitchell, was a radical one.

An ambitious plan that would change the cultural, social, economic and sporting landscape of the country forever. His detractors though, simply said it was a politically-motivated publicity stunt.

Surely Dublin could never host the biggest show on earth – the Olympic Games.

“A lot of people thought it was joke,” Jonathan Irwin explains to The42.

Dublin’s Challenge

Irwin, a prominent businessman, and who along with his wife Mary Ann has since gone on to establish the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation, was an integral part of the ambitious project, but admits that even he initially believed that the idea of Dublin hosting an event of the magnitude of the Olympics was farcical.

It was back in 1992 that Mitchell first commissioned a report to discover if Dublin could make a credible bit to host the Games.

“Back in the early 1990s we had nothing: not the venues, not the motorways that we have today,” Irwin recalls.

“It was a very interesting time. We had really high calibre of people working on the report, and it became a blueprint for Dublin going forward.

9/4/2015. Gay Marriage Equality Referendums Irwin was made the CEO of the Dublin International Sports Council in 1993. Source: /Photocall Ireland

“There were 14 different committees set up looking at everything ranging from accommodation, environment, transport, security, culture, marketing, finance, media and telecommunications. Every area had to produce a report within 18 months; we started with very little hope, but we were always looking at 2016.

“Pat Hickey [President of the Olympic Council of Ireland] initially rubbished the idea, but once the report was published he was very much on board.

We didn’t necessarily think we would win, but we had enough to put together a credible bid together. When the finance committee said it was possible, it became more of a realistic opportunity.

The project was deemed cost-effective in the Price Waterhouse report titled: Making an Olympic Bid: Dublin’s Challenge. 

The vision would have seen Dublin’s docklands revamped into the Olympic village; Croke Park transformed into the main Olympic stadium for the track and field events; and Lansdowne Road, the RDS, and UCD’s Belfield campus all redeveloped to host other competitions. On top of that, the telecommunication and transport hubs would have been completely overhauled.

The regeneration of Dublin, a chance to encourage higher participation in sport, and the opportunity to advertise the country like never before on the world stage were all compelling arguments made in favour of the bid.

‘Positive experience’

Irwin took up the role of CEO of the Dublin International Sports Council (DISC) while former newspaper tycoon Tony O’Reilly became the chairman.

The remit of the body was straightforward: to demonstrate that the country’s capital was capable of staging some of the world’s biggest sporting events, with one eye on an Olympic bid.

Among the events staged in Dublin in the following years were the 1994 Women’s Hockey World Cup, the college football game in 1996 between Notre Dame and US Naval Academy — the first of its kind in Europe — as well as the opening stage of the 1998 Tour de France.

“The Tour de France was very complex to organise. It was like D-Day. It was a mighty undertaking; organising the machinery, arranging road closures and getting the riders back to France the next day.

“But it showed we had the capacity and the facilities. It was a very positive experience and showed we could not only host big events, but do them well.”

Tour de France in Dublin 11/7/1998 The first three stages of 1998 Tour de France were in Ireland as part of the DISC's remit. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Another project that Irwin was involved in at the time was the possible transfer of Premier League football club Wimbledon from London to Dublin. At the time, Wimbledon had no stadium of their own, and controversial owner Sam Hammam was looking to sell.

“We thought we had it done. The only real stumbling block was that the FAI wouldn’t meet with us and we needed a licence from them. The Dublin Chamber of Commerce said it would be worth £22 million annually to Dublin.

“We would have a 40,000 seater-stadium in Clondalkin, and we struck a deal with Ryanair to transport the fans from the UK for the first year or two.

“The deal would have been better to attract players too. It is much more attractive to live in Dublin, than say Sunderland.”

But ultimately the ‘Dublin Dons’, as they would have been called, never happened and Wimbledon eventually became Milton Keynes Dons with the club’s proud history virtually erased from today’s incarnation. (In its place, a small group of hardcore fans did set up a new club, AFC Wimbledon, at the bottom of England’s footballing pyramid in 2002; after six promotions in 14 years, they will compete in the same division as MK Dons this season.)

Counting the cost

It is one thing to put an Olympic bid together, but quite another to convince the general public that spending billions of euro of taxpayers’ money is a worthwhile investment.

The view among many governments now is that the tangible and intangible benefits that come with staging events such as the Olympic Games rarely justify the significant investment required by the exchequer.

However, a poll conducted by the BBC a year after London 2012, showed more than two-thirds of the British public felt that the £9 billion spent to host the 2012 Games was well spent while 74% said they would like to see the Games return to Britain.

However, part of the London’s bid of the Olympics was to leave a lasting legacy and to “inspire a generation” to play more sport, goals which have failed to materialise as Rio approaches. Newly-released data from Sport England show that people now play less sport than they did in 2012, with the figure down 0.4% over that four-year period.

More startling is the fact that the biggest decline was among the among people from ethnic minorities and economically-disadvantaged groups.

In the past, hosting the Olympics may have been a dream, but it appears now that it could be an economic nightmare — not to mention the extra security required due to heightened terror threats that are now part of the process of staging major events.

Legacy

Although the Dublin Olympic report had its detractors, it also highlighted that if the money was invested in the right areas, there was scope for plenty of improvement in the capital.

“We did have capacity to host it,” Irwin continues. “We have things in our favour like a good time zone and no enemies. The conclusion was that we could do it. The next step was to get the government in favour of a bid, but we never got it.”

“People gave up time on voluntary basis. Meeting every week. People who shared my attitude were convinced it could happen.

“It was so long ago in a way. Ideas were revolutionary at the time. We missed our chance.

“2016 was to be the year. The staging of the Special Olympics of which I was a board member kind of morphed out of it.”

Perhaps staging the Games can be compared to giving the International Olympic Committee the keys to your house to host their party, in the hope that your reputation and popularity would exponentially be enhanced in the process.

But experience has shown that you’re the one left footing the bill and cleaning up the mess when they move on.

If you factor in all the recent controversies surrounding the Games, the shine of an Olympic gold medal for some, doesn’t seem as lustrous as it did 24 years ago.

With special thanks to Cllr Ruairi McGinley who assisted in the research of this article.

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About the author:

Shane Costello

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