Autobiography is timely reminder of Mary Peters’ pride of place in British sporting history

51 years ago, Mary Peters became an Olympic champion at the Munich Games – her thrilling success on the track and her considerable achievements off it make her updated life story an even more compelling page-turner now…

By Philip Barker

Before Denise, Jessica, KJT and even before Daley, Britain had a champion multi-eventer.

At Munich’s Olympic Stadium in 1972, Mary Peters became Olympic champion after an epic struggle against Heidi Rosendahl of West Germany and Berglinde Pollak of East Germany in the pentathlon.

Her newly-issued autobiography ‘Mary Peters: My Story’ is a poignant account, tinged at times with tragedy but true to a life well-lived.

Those of a certain generation will know that her life story first appeared as ‘Mary P’, written in 1974 with the help of a masterly hand, Ian Wooldridge.

This new volume “reproduces the original text as it so accurately reflected how I felt in the aftermath of Munich,” Peters explains.

The 1972 pentathlon was not decided until the 200 metres, the fifth and last event.

Peters had been up against two Germans, Rosendahl of the West and Pollak from the East.

Respected athletics journalist Mel Watman and Mary’s coach Buster McShane had calculated what was required.

“He didn’t confuse me with figures and decimal points. It simply had to be the fastest I’d ever run,” Peters wrote.

BBC Television commentator Ron Pickering came to the same conclusion. “C’mon Mary, you need the run of your life,” he roared.

As she finished the race in fourth, Pickering asked: “Is it enough?”

At length, the scoreboard confirmed the truth. It was enough, and Peters’ life would never be the same again.

“I leaned over the edge to let anyone see and touch the medal that Northern Ireland had brought away from the Olympics. It wasn’t mine, it was ours,” she said of one occasion.

Peters succeeded Princess Anne as the SJA Sportswoman of the Year, when we were still known as the Sports Writers’ Association (SWA).

“We flew over to London for yet another party, this time as guests of the Sports Writers’ Association. We danced and talked and drank a lot,” she writes. The awards event was then a dinner/dance.

Peters had been born in Liverpool but had grown up in Belfast. She was first chosen for the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff as a 19-year-old.

The book charts her three Olympic selections and her successes at the Commonwealth Games. There are also more sinister moments when she received death threats and she recounts the tragic loss of coach McShane in a car crash.

At the time of her Olympic victory, Peters had called for a new track to be built in Belfast.

“If the Olympic victory gave me any privilege to value above all others, it was the opportunity to draw attention to the abysmal standards of athletics facilities in my hometown.”

How it was achieved is described in the book. With the help of Belfast journalist Jim Gracey, she chronicles the growth of the Mary Peters Trust.

The new material includes Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984, her two Olympics as athletics team manager which she describes as “like herding kittens”.

At Hillsborough Castle, 2014 (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images)

She did dispense one pearl to the late Hugh Russell, boxing bronze medallist for Ireland in Moscow. Russell found he had a surplus of roubles as the Games ended. Peters told him “they will be worthless, you’d better spend them.”

Russell bought himself a camera and enjoyed a second career as an award-winning photographer with the Irish News.

In 2012, Peters was one of the great names invited to nominate a young athlete as one of the final Torchlighters for the London Olympics. She chose Katie Kirk, one of the 4,000 whom her Trust had helped.

As a former Lord Lieutenant of Belfast and a Knight of the Garter, she was also invited to process through Westminster Abbey at the Coronation.

It is no accident that the cover of the book is decorated with tributes from sports personalities. “An unparalleled influence in sport in Northern Ireland,” says Dame Kelly Holmes.

In his foreword, Lord Coe concludes: “Mary is royalty in Northern Ireland.” There are many who will agree.

Many more will enjoy this volume which contains some remarkable photographs from her life. In the vast majority of those images, there is a familiar beaming smile.

‘Mary Peters: My Story’ is published by Blackstaff Press.

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