Hail, Lady Mary!


This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

This is a banner year for golden sporting anniversaries. First 1972 gave us
Bob Massie, as detailed in last month’s column. Then it gave us Mary Peters.

The Munich Olympics were Mary’s last shot at glory. She had competed in the pentathlon at the two previous Games, finishing fourth in Tokyo in 1964 and ninth in Mexico City four years later.

This was her city

She lived in Belfast, where training conditions were tough — rainy, cold, a running track pitted with potholes, and of course repeated bombs and security alerts. But it was also for Belfast that she wanted to win as much as she did for herself. This was her city which she loved fiercely. Its people loved her right back, for her effervescence, her smile and her warmth.

The Olympic competition took place over two days. Spurred on by her number
(111, which she took as an omen), the atmosphere and the vast crowd — “it was the first time in my life and career I had a real audience, and I performed for them” — Mary attacked the first day like a woman possessed. Personal best in the 80m hurdles. Personal best in the shot. Personal best in the high jump.

Her overnight lead was 300 points, yet she couldn’t sleep. “Every time I looked at
my watch it seemed the hands had moved backwards.” For she knew that day two was the turf of her main rival, West Germany’s Heide Rosendahl, and that those 300 points could vanish in the blink of an eye.

Heide had already won individual long jump gold, and she picked up where she left off — a leap of 6.83m, just a centimetre off her own world record. Mary recorded 5.95m. Those 300 points were down to just 47. If Heide ran to her maximum in the 200 meters, Mary would need another lifetime best to cling onto gold. “People kept telling me not to worry, as I’d won a medal. But I kept saying ‘any medal is no good. It’s got to be the gold’.”

To their marks. The hush, the set, the gun, the roar. The stagger holding as the bend unwinds. Heide on the outside, red and white striped socks a blur as she flows down the track. Mary’s strides are shorter, choppier as she starts to lose ground.

In the BBC commentary box Ron Pickering unashamedly abandons any attempt at impartiality and instead channels the yearning of millions of viewers back home.

“Now come on, Mary, you need the run of your lifetime. Keep on going. Rosendahl on the outside. Pollak is going well but she’s only a yard clear. Mary, come on! come on! You’ve got two yards to make. Rosendahl hits the tape first, Bodner second, Pollak third, Peters fourth. But is it enough?”

For ten minutes they wait: officials poring over points tables, checking and double-checking their results, while the athletes stand in little huddles and the photographers swarm around. Suddenly Heide comes over and embraces Mary as the result flashes up on the board. PETERS, GBR, 4801: ROSENDAHL, GER, 4791. Ten points. Ten points is a tenth of a second, a tiny fraction of time in which gold medals are won and lost.

A death threat is phoned into the BBC. “Mary Peters is a Protestant and has won a medal for Britain. An attempt will be made on her life and it will be blamed on the IRA. Her home will be going up in the near future.”

A golden balm for a troubled and divided nation

“Bollocks to that,” she says. “I’m going back to Belfast.” And when she does the city turns out to welcome her: a golden balm for a troubled and divided nation, just as she wanted. “I won it for you,” she tells the crowd, “and I’ve brought it back for you.” she was offered jobs in the United States and Australia, but refused both. “I wouldn’t be happy. My family is the Northern Ireland people.”

She set up a trust in her name to support talented young sportsmen and women from across Northern Ireland. To date it’s helped more than 4,000 people, some of whom have gone onto stardom: golfers Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, rugby player David Humphreys and boxer Carl Frampton.

She became British athletics team manager, the perfect mix of mother hen and sergeant-major, knowing instinctively who needed an arm round their shoulder and who a kick up the arse. More than one athlete in her charge owed their medal to a Mary P pep talk just before the off.

She championed the cause of women in sport, and in her footsteps as the best multi-event athlete in the world have come Denise Lewis, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson. She went into schools and spoke to children. She served as Lord Lieutenant of Belfast for five years, and at the track where she once trained she is immortalised in a bronze statue.

She’s now in her eighties but has the energy and enthusiasm of someone half her age: and she still, as she always did, knows the value of things rather than their price. “I’ll never be rich, I’ll never be able to afford exotic holidays, but the greatest pleasure I’ve had from my success is in being able to help other people.”

Lady Mary Peters. Olympic champion. National treasure. And gold, in every way.

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