120 Years, 120 Stories (Part 35) : Mary Peters – The Pentathlon Queen of Ireland


We have seen how politics and ideological differences have characterized a few editions of the Olympic Games. Presenting to you another such story where a gold medalist was threatened with death threats and carnage owing to her religious leanings.

This is yet another episode from the 1972 Munich Games – the very edition where a Palestine-based outfit took the lives of 11 Israeli athletes and when Mark Spitz gold rush was followed by an immediate escape from Germany. The story is about a 33-year old British woman’s age and threat defying success story to win the pentathlon – an athletic event consisting of five different track and field events – followed by a backlash at home due to her Protestant upbringing.

Mary Peters was born at the English county of Lanchashire in 1939 before her family relocated to Belfast in Northern Ireland on account of his father’s occupation. Back in those days, Ireland was a place of political turmoil owing to an effort by the nationalists to secede the Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and unite it with the independent Republic of Ireland. The nationalists were mainly Roman Catholics while the unionists (in favour of being part of UK) belong to the Protestant sect of Christianity – thus making the rift equally as religious as political. Mary Peters harboured Protestant views.

In her tune up to the Olympics, Ireland were facing a crisis and on a dark day in history of Ireland (known as Bloody Friday), nine people were killed with many more suffering injuries due to bombing. It hurt the pre-season practice schedule of Peters at the Queen’s University at Belfast. However success at the Edinburg Commonwealth Games in 1970 won her a scholarship for a six-week long training at California away from the volatile shores of Ireland.

Though Peters debuted in the 1964 Games and later participated once more after four years hence, she could not win a medal before Munich. At Tokyo, she finished a commendable fourth but at Mexico, the English-born athlete ended a dismal ninth. At Munich however, the veteran was determined to bag a medal if not gold. Her main rival was the local German favourite and seven years her junior – Heide Rosendahl.

The pentathlon event was scheduled over two days and it consisted of the following five events – 100m hurdles, shot put, high jump, long jump and 200m race. The Great Britain athlete came second at the hurdles while she won the shot put and the high jump events. By the end of day one, Peters led the scoreboard with Burglinde Pollock of East Germany second behind 97 points. Her major rival Rosendahl needed to cover 300 points gap between them and the stage was quite set for her being the gold medal holder at the individual long jump and also a fine sprinter to romp home the 200m.

Peters managed to hold sway with her jumps although Rosendahl gained the upper hand. Prior to the deciding 200m, the equation was such that the Briton needed to complete the race within 1.2 seconds of the German crossing the finishing line. So it was advantage Peters and she did come home in 24.08 after Rosendahl crossed the finishing line in 22.96 seconds and won gold by 10 points but after a series of re-calculations and minutes of nerve-wracking suspense. She ended the event garnering a total of 4081 points – a world record. In four of the five events in the pentathlon, she achieved her personal best while coming within a distance of 2 inches from the same in the long jump.

Peters who used to represent the Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games headed back home at Belfast where she was kept under tight security for the next 3 months owing to death attacks on her by the Irish nationalists. She was such a true patriot that she declined offers to get settled away from the strife-torn Ireland to the serene life at Australia or the USA. The following year she received the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) with a couple of other public honours bestowed upon her by the North Irish Government. She also set up the Mary Peters Trust in order to promote sports throughout the Northern Ireland.