Belfast Telegraph

Golden girl Mary Peters vows to 'chill' and devote time to friends as she turns 80

Dame Mary Peters at her home in Belfast ahead of her 80th birthday
Dame Mary Peters at her home in Belfast ahead of her 80th birthday
Dame Mary Peters at her home in Belfast

By Michael McHugh

Northern Ireland's Golden Girl Lady Mary Peters has promised she will take it easier after she celebrates her 80th birthday today.

The athlete, famous for winning Olympic gold, is having a low-key birthday celebration with her family - she held an official celebration in May.

Lady Mary, who won the pentathlon with a world record-breaking performance in the Munich Olympics of 1972, has spent the last half-century raising money for good causes.

She has been aiming at a £1m target so that young athletes will continue to benefit as a legacy in future years.

Lady Mary said: "I have been fundraising since I won my medal, which was 47 years ago, I think it is time for me.

"I have neglected my friends over the years, I have other ideas of travel that I would like to do and I would just like to be able to sit down some days in my sun room and chill."

Lady Mary walks four miles most days, works in her large garden and also does patchwork quilting.

Last month, she was made a Lady Companion of the Order of the Garter.

She has also recovered from open heart surgery.

This weekend she is having a low-key birthday celebration with her family.

She said: "I am not going to be idle but I want more time for me.

She heads the Mary Peters Trust, which provides financial support to young athletes.

She said: "I won't neglect the Trust, because it has helped so many and will in the future.

"And that is what the million pounds was about, a legacy so that when I am no longer here they will invest that money and young people will continue for years to come to benefit from the Trust."

In the 1972 Olympics, Lady Mary won gold and her life changed forever.

Just 44 days beforehand, the IRA had detonated 22 bombs in 75 minutes, devastating Belfast.

She was the only track athlete to win gold for Britain in Munich, but her triumph was tempered by the kidnapping of Israeli athletes by Palestinian paramilitary group Black September.

She recalled the authorities had not expected any violence and wanted to show Germany in a good light, so security was not as tight as it should have been.

She said: "They have had to live with it for all those years since; I have been back a number of times and they don't want to talk about Munich because of the tragedy."

Her win over the home favourite was a massive international story; she came from a Northern Ireland blighted by violence.

Lady Mary was threatened with being shot should she return home from Munich; but paraded down the main street of Belfast in triumph.

She said: "In my mind there was no question I was coming home and it just put a dampener on the whole event, but for the Israelis it was tragic."

Her resilience was evident from her earliest days, travelling across Belfast against a backdrop of bombings and violence.

Lady Mary added: "Very often when I was going to the track, which was in bad order, I would get the bus from where I lived on the Antrim Road into Belfast and then another bus up to the Upper Malone Road.

"It was not easy carrying your shot and your starting blocks and all the equipment.

"Very often there would be bombs going off in the city. But I always say, I never turned back, I never went home.

"I just had to get there and do my training."

No financial help was available - her only support was her coach Buster McShane and the other athletes she trained with.

She said: "Mike (Bull) and I used to train late at night in the gym after I had done my day's work.

"We put diving belts on round our waists and jumping for height - it was an Olympic competition.

"I loved it, I loved the challenge and the friendships and trained with a lot of men because they were faster and stronger and they were very supportive."

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