Mary Peters back on right track
If ever a sporting ambassador put more back into their sport and country than they ever took out, it is our own great Dame, Mary Peters.
Fittingly today sees a dream come true, second time around, for Dame Mary as the famous south Belfast athletics track that bears her name, re-opens for business, and not any old business.
A £3million Belfast City Council funded upgrade has brought the Mary Peters Track back up to present day international standard with an obligatory increase from six lanes to eight and a new 400-seater grandstand added.
It means big-time international athletics can now return to Belfast and a re-run of the heady nights of the 1980's when thousands flocked to the Peters Track the to be thrilled close-up by the biggest names of the day, including Coe and Ovett, John Walker, Ed Moses, Linford Christie, Geoff Capes, Fatima Whitbread, Tessa Saunderson, Kathy Cook, Shirley Strong and, most famously, Zola Budd ahead of her ill-fated 1984 Los Angeles Olympic clash with Mary Decker.
Over 10,000 flocked in that night.
A major official re-opening event, featuring star names, is being planned for June and the venue will also host track and field competition in the World Police and Fire Games, of which Dame Mary is Patron, in August.
But more importantly for the 1972 Olympic pentathlon Gold medallist, today's handback after a year-long refurbishment means her track can now revert to the use she envisaged when the dream first became reality 37 years ago – the starting gun for the athletic hopes of local schools and clubs.
Her only regret is the absence from today's tape-cutting of an original project driving force, her great friend, mentor and our former Belfast Telegraph Sports Editor Malcolm Brodie, who passed away, aged 86, in January.
"We owe the Track to Malcolm's energy and determination," Dame Mary said. "What we have re-opening here today, this magnificent facility, all began with a phone call from Malcolm.
"He called me in Munich on the night of my Gold medal success and asked what I'd like; something lasting that would inspire generations to come.
"Little did I realise the implication when I replied 'my own track' – not for me but for Belfast and Northern Ireland and every young athlete who shared my own dream; to give them a focus and the proper facilities on which to train and compete.
"Malcolm, bless him, and the Telegraph, put their back into it and four years, and quite literally, many hurdles later, we begged and borrowed our way to realising the original dream on Monday, April 16, 1976."
Wear and tear and a raising of the bar in terms of international standards left the Track desperately in need of an expensive makeover in recent years – and with funding in short supply, there were fears over its long term future.
That was until Belfast City Council rode to the rescue last year, spurred by their securing of the World Police and Fire Games bringing over 10,000 competitors to Belfast later this year, Dame Mary's connection to the event as Patron and her standing in world athletics.
Soon also to be granted the Freedom of Belfast by the City Council, Dame Mary is a former Great Britain Olympic team manager, a London 2012 ambassador and, of course, helps fund the development of young sportsmen and women across Northern Ireland through her Trust fund.
"We really are indebted to the Council and their generosity in ensuring the legacy of the Track continues," Dame Mary acknowledged.
Belfast Lord Mayor, Alderman Gavin Robinson, and Councillor Deirdre Hargey, Chair of the council's Strategic Policy and Resources Committee, join Dame Mary in doing the honours today in declaring the Track open for the next generation.