The stories of pioneering women in sport have always fascinated and inspired me, hence starting a feature in the magazine on pioneers.
What I have found so incredible is to be able to meet and spend time with some of these living legends; words can’t explain what it is like to sit with
such amazing athletes and trailblazers of the modern era.
Dame Mary Peters is by no means an exception to this. She represented Northern Ireland in pentathlon and shot putt at every Commonwealth Games between
1958 and 1974. What an incredible amount of time to represent your country and aged 33, in her third and last Olympics Mary won gold in Munich in the
pentathlon. As well as this she won 3 gold and a silver Commonwealth games medals in her career.
There are so many things that make Mary’s story so amazing, she finished 4th in 1964 and 9th in 1968, so to then win gold in 1972 was a huge comeback.
Not only this, but in winning she set two new world records. First, she beat the local favourite Germany’s Heide Rosendahl by the smallest number of
points (10) and gained the most number of points for the pentathlon 4,800. As Mary recounts, “I went to Munich believing I could win and that I wanted
Although she was so focused on winning the thing I like whilst talking with her is that she still enjoyed it and it was an experience she was clearly enjoying
and made her enjoy every minute. She knew how hard she had trained and the sacrifices she had made to be there. Mary recalls how because there were
no training facilities in Belfast she had to walk and catch two separate buses across the city to go and train, as she says, “all whilst bombs were
going off” and whilst working full time!
Mary’s victory was marred by the troubles in Northern Ireland though and once again she proved what an amazing person she is. Death threats were phoned
into the BBC after her winning saying: “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.” Despite this Mary insisted on going back to Belfast. She was greeted by fans
and a band at the airport and paraded through the city streets, but was not allowed back in her flat for three months. Mary speaks so fondly of how
she was welcomed and as she does you get the sense she sees people as people rather than a religion or sect or colour - and it’s this view that allowed
her and continues to see her help so many people in Northern Ireland.
This was the era of the non-professional, the amateur and Mary was adamant that if she was an amateur that’s how it should be. She recalls a story to me
of how after one event a gentleman who had promoted the event approached her and offered her the equivalent of £1,000 to cover her expenses and she
refused point blank. “I didn’t take it, I wasn’t going to take it and I didn’t want anyone to say I lost my amateur status,” she said.
These were times that are so different to today. There is so much talk about pay parity, prize money parity and the low pay and money in general for
female athletes today and yet people like Mary funded their sport themselves whilst representing their countries as complete amateurs. One of the
many things that stands out about Mary is her attitude to the women earning a living as athletes now and all that goes with it from sponsorship
deals to agents etc. “I have no resentment for those earning a fortune from it now. You can only sleep in one bed, as long as they are putting
something back,” Mary said.
As we continue to talk she is clear that the modern era and the last couple of years in particular have seen a lot of positives for women’s sport but
she balances it with a caution to this generation that putting money over country and money over enjoyment and love of the sport isn’t right and
that giving back is vital. She appreciates people need to earn a living but not at the risk of losing sight of why we all started competing. She
finishes by saying, “I was in the red when I retired, but it’s been a wonderful life, I couldn’t change a thing. We did it for the travel and success
To Mary giving back is the key to it all and the passion and enthusiasm with which she talks is wonderful to listen to and be a part of. What I like
as well is that she would do it all again in a heartbeat and not change a thing, not even money. What a great way to look back on your life and
career, a truly remarkable pioneer.