Dame Mary 1972
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‘London calling’.   2012 saw the Olympic Games return to London for the first time since 1948 and among those who was feted was of course by Dame Mary Peter’s the Olympic Champion from Munich in 1972. An amazing 40 years have passed since that memorable achievement and ironically local athletics will be unable to commemorate her achievement on the track which was the legacy of her bringing Gold back to Belfast. The Mary Peters’ Track will spend the summer of 2012 as a building site as it prepares for its next re-incarnation as an all singing, all dancing eight lane international venue.

As Mary prepared for the Pentathlon forty years ago the Mary Peters’ Track was not even a dream. On the site of the present track was the Queen’s University Track at Upper Malone. For those brought up on cinders and grass the rubber solution laid on top of tar macadam and loose chippings was of course a giant step forward but it very quickly fell foul of wear and tear and by 1972 chunks of the track often went home in the spike bags of those who trained there, including of course Mary herself.

It should also be noted that athletics, along with every other sport in the country, continued against a background of civil unrest perhaps unimaginable to those who did not live through it. Indeed 1972 was to emerge as the most devastating year in terms of loss of life with a horrendous 249 people losing their lives from all walks of life. Shootings, explosions and funerals were a regular part of everyday life yet throughout it all sport did its best to fulfil its fixtures to the best of its ability.

Olympic year in Northern Ireland began competitively at Ballyclare on New Year’s Day with the running of the Miskimmin Cup 6 miles cross country. The winner, for the third successive year, was North Belfast’s Mick Teerahead of a trio of Ballydrain men Tom Price, the late Ian Morrison and Denis Price giving the Comber men an easy team victory. Paul Younger, then of 9th Old Boys and subsequently Annadale Striders, won the Youths and, what was at the time an inaugral Veteran’s event, went toJohnston Foy ahead of North Belfast clubmate William ‘Tinky’ Thompson. Other notable names to compete that day were John McLaughlin (7th), John Allen (10th) Les Jones (20th) and, in the Youths, Matt Shields (12th).

While Ballydrain took first blood in the team honours the rest of the year belonged to Achilles. The Belfast outfit, formed just three years previously out of the old NACAI club Casement Park, had recruited a wealth of youth and experience and although their existence on the scene was to be short lived their impact was immense. 

Four weeks later Rathmore at Dunmurry played host to the prestigious Northern Ireland Junior and Boys Championships.    Achilles arrived in strength and left with both individual and team titles. Co-incidentally the two individual winners, John McLaughlin and Paul Lawther, would soon find themselves wearing the colours of Annadale Striders, both with great distinction. In the Boys race Lawther took victory over his clubmate Peter McGouran with another Achilles athlete Eddie Rooney in sixth. In 2011 Eddie Rooney was one of the main organisers of the British Transplant Games in Belfast an event in which McGouran had achieved considerable success in previous years as the recipient of a Transplant.

The week after the Junior McLaughlin was again in winning form in yet another cross-country event which has gone by the wayside in recent years. In this case the 9th Old Boy’s promotion the Crawford Cup saw ‘Wee John’ ahead of the aforementioned Ballydrain trio while McGouran turned the tables on Lawther in the Youths event and Rooney took the Boys prize.

In 1972 athletics was still many years away from any form of unity and the then Ulster Sports Council continued to operate as a separate body with teams like Killybegs, Armagh City, Dungannon, West Belfast, Cranford, Lifford and Laragh contesting their own championships. In their Junior Cross Country Championships held in Strabane in January Malcolm McCausland, now a coaching guru with City of Derry Spartans, running for Lifford finished second behindJackie Boyce of Cranford.

While the ‘winter brigade’ took to the fields some of the track and field fraternity moved indoors and in particular to the indoor arena at RAF Cosford in the Midlands of England. They had little choice as this was the only venue available and it was far from the luxury of the present day Birmingham, Sheffield, Kelvin Hall or indeed the Odyssey Arena. The old RAF hanger was cold and far from easy to get to, but it did provide a 200 metres banked track and was witness to many great performances.

In early January Mary P. won the 60 metres hurdles while soon to be fellow Olympian Mike Bull won the Pole Vault. Cyril Crawford, Davy Bennett and Johnny Kilpatrick contested the sprints while Willowfield’sCyril Pennington finished sixth in the 2000 metres steeplechase (without the water jump.) Later in the month Mary continued to drop hints of what was to come later in the year when she produced a personal best high jump of 5’ 7” in meeting in which Ian Stewart broke the UK Indoor 3000m record ahead of Dave Bedford. The success that NI athletes were having at Cosford was in stark contrast to the lack of any indoor facilities back home and an appeal was made for an indoor arena to be provided at Ballykelly or Aldergrove in one of the RAF hangers. Sadly we, the athletic fraternity, had a long wait until the Odyssey arrived and even then it was a once a year and very expensive facility.

Strangely however the appeal for a track at Aldergrove did come to fruition as what was known as the Bell’s track from Scotland apparently was transferred to the military facility in Co. Antrim. Like the current outdoor tartan track in Lisburn it was never open to public access due to the prevailing security situation.

Cross Country continued throughout February and March with not a road race in sight. In fact road races were few and far between with a short season in April and early May and another in September/October before it was back to the serious business of ‘the country’. Many of the road races were in the form of relay events with the individual events like the Ballyclare 10, Nomads 15, Co. Antrim Half Marathon and the Northern Ireland Marathon Championship attracting what would now be considered small fields but which were of a very high quality.

In mid February Paul Lawther added to his Boys and Youths titles by winning the trial to select a Junior team for the International Cross Country Championships (soon to become the World Cross Country) to be held in Cambridge. Revelation of the day was Paul Younger in second place while Martin Donaldson and Tom Hesketh took the remaining automatic places.

A week later the Senior Cross Country acted as a similar trial and was held at the Maze Racecourse for the first time in a quarter of a century. Mike Teer came home the winner ahead of John McLaughlin, Gerry Hannon andIan Morrison. Other qualifiers were Jim McGuinness, Denis Price, Roy Kernohan, Kevin Morgan (a cousin of Pole Vaulter Mike Bull) and Ian Cotton. Northern Ireland has first competed in the International as a separate team in 1967 and although Derek Graham, representing an All Ireland team in 1966, had finished a magnificent second it has to be said the standard of competition generally found the local boys and girls in the lower section the field.

Teer transferred his form to the road at the end of March winning the highly prized Ballyclare 10 mile in 49.56 ahead of Ian Morrison 51.09 and Roy Kernaghan51.45. The positions were the same some three weeks later in the Duncairn Nomad’s 15 mile held over a tough undulating course in North Belfast. The other major distance event the Co. Antrim Half Marathon, run on an out and back course from Harberton Park via Balmoral, Finaghy Road South, Drumbeg and the Hillhall Road, saw John McLaughlin deprive Teer of a treble winning in a superb 64.47 with Teer second and Morrison third.

The ‘troubles’ took their toll on the Ireland’s Saturday Night road relay. This event sponsored by the late lamented local weekly sports paper traditionally started at the Albert Clock in Belfast and followed a 12 stage route out to Banbridge and back to the Ormeau Park. In 1972 conditions meant that the start, for the first time its inauguration in 1964, was transferred to Portadown and took in only eight stages to the usual finishing point in the park. John McLaughin of Achilles entered the track in the park for a victory lap well clear of Willowfield, Ballydrain and 9th Old Boys. However drama ensued when the winners were disqualified for the last minute change to their team which had not been declared to the organisers. Minutes before a change over Achilles had discovered that their declared runner, Michael Wright, was a first claim member of Ballymena. Seventeen year old Gerry Price, now headmaster of Malone College, was told to strip off and join the fray with literally seconds to spare . Achilles to their credit took the disqualification in good grace.

The track and field season had begun with Cyril Crawford proving the best of the local sprinters a situation which would pertain throughout the season. For Crawford a squat and powerful little sprinter 1972 was his best season running 10.5 for the 100 metres to finish high up the British rankings. A maths teacher in Lisnagarvey High School in Lisburn he progressed to be Headmaster of Cullybackey High School before his untimely death in a road accident.

Other promising early season track performances came from schoolgirl Linda McCurry running 41.7 for 300m and Pam Reece (now Brown) winning a 600m. However these performances were produced in an atmosphere common to events 40 years later – namely disappointingly poor turn out by the track and field athletes. Only 20 athletes turned up for the first two meetings of the year!

On the World scene it was reported that some Russian called Alexander Baryshinikov was causing a bit of a stir by demonstrating a new technique of putting the shot by going round in circles. Like that idea of Dick Fosburyof going backwards in the High Jump it is probably destined for failure!

If events were quiet on the competitive front the opposite was the case in the corridors of power. Indeed 1972 saw what can only be described as a bloodless coup taking place at the Annual General Meeting of the Northern Ireland Mens AAAs. 

There was some consternation when the post of Chairman of the NIAAA, a position long held byRichard (Dick) McColgan, was opposed. As well as his position of authority within athletics Dick was also a very powerful figure within the Commonwealth Games movement both locally and internationally. Most pundits within the sport saw his position as impregnable but there was a younger element within the sport led by former Portadown College Head Boy Les Jones who felt that it was time for change. Customs Officer Les, recently returned from working and running in England, was nominated and duly elected as Chairman at the age of 29 with an equally young and competing athlete Ernie Wilson of Co. Antrim Harriers taking on the role of Secreatary. The old guard and elements of the media felt that the ‘rebels’ would fail from lack of experience but history would show that Les Jones was to lead the sport to new heights and despite his sad premature death he was to leave behind a legacy of major events which showed that Northern Ireland could hold its own on the world stage. It was he who brought some of the world’s best athletes to the Mary Peters’ and Antrim Track for meetings which pulled in spectators in the tens of thousands.

A former President of the NIAAA John McEwan had presented a trophy for Inter Club competition on the track which became known as the President’s Trophy. In the 1972 version McLaughlin transferred his road form to the 5000 metres winning in 15.45 while Jim McGuinness, subsequently a sub four minute miler, took the 1500 metres. 

In June the Decathlon Championship was won by High Jumper Dan Coyle of Achilles with the late Alf McMeekin taking Silver ahead of yours truly. The 3000 metres steeplechase title was traditionally held separately from the main Track and Field Championships and 1972 was no exception with victory going to Trevor Alderdiceahead of Jim Ferris and David Seaton.

A week after the chase history was made with the first combined men and women’s championships taking place at Shaws Bridge. Jim McGuinness repeated his President’s Trophy success in the 1500 metres in 3:56.9 ahead of John Allen. Thus within a space of three weeks the current Secretary, Chairman and President of Athletics NI all won Senior Championship medals. Cyril Crawford continued his dominance of the sprints winning in 10.9 and 22.0 and the Boys 100m was won by current Larne Grammar School teacher Jimmy Christie. On the women’s side Gay Porter took a clean sweep of the throws (no Women’s Hammer in those days) and there were medals for four of our present day Track officials Maeve Kyle, Pam Reece (now Brown), Adrienne Lynch (Smyth) and Elizabeth Hogarth (Glover).   The Boys 1500 metres was won by Campbell College pupil Mike Nesbitt, former Broadcaster and now a leading Unionist MLA.

July saw the usual dearth of local competition although Queens Universtiy celebrated their Centenary with the annual QUB v NIAAA Match with victories going to current ANI Press Officer Brian Hill (1500m) and UK Multi Events guru Ian Grant (HJ). Meanwhile Mary Peters was taking the Silver Medal in the High Jump in the WAAA Championships at Crystal Palace and Mike Bull broke the UK and Commonwealth Pole Vault Record with a height of 17’ 1”. Dave Bedford was also in record breaking form taking the British 2000m record in 5:03.2 (that’s 5 laps ave. 60.6 secs!) and the European 5000 metres record followed the next day with a 10000 metres in 27:52.8. In the School’s International at Cwmbran Linda McCurry (Morton) won the 200 meters in 24.6 seconds.

At the end of the month the Northern Ireland Marathon took place with a field numbering less that ten runners. After one lap of the Ormeau Park track the runners headed on the long climb to Saintfield via. Carryduff and back to the park. Clear winner was Mike Teer in 2:22.27 with Billy Murray and John Henderson taking the minor medals. Also in the small field was another current MLA Robin Newton running for Co. Antrim. The major marathon of the year in the UK was the Maxol in Manchester. Ron Hill finished second in 2:12.50 and 18 British runners broke 2:20 compared with six in the 2011 London Marathon!!!

Another NIAAA representative match took place in August against Queen’s University and a Select team representing Stretford from Manchester. While the 5000 metres was won by USA Mexico Olympian Bill Reilly representing Stretford the main event of the day was of course the 400 metres hurdles in which modesty forbids me to mention the winner.

With the Olympics beckoning Mary Peters continued her fine form with a personal best high jump of 5’ 10” in the Edinburgh Highland Games and was the second best ever by a UK woman. This, it has to be remembered, from someone considered to be a Shot Putter!

Back on the roads ‘Wee John’ resumed his winning ways in Bangor while Trevor Alderdice won the Divisview Shield 6 miles Handicap and Ballydrain won the Portrush Relays and North Belfast the Smyth Cup.

In October it was time, as it remains today, for a trip to the seaside to watch the boats go out. The esplanade in Larne can be a wild, wet and windy place in October and nowadays it is the venue for the Larne Half Marathon. In 1972 it was home to the Larne Road Relays. Teams composed of six runners completed 3 x 4 mile legs and 3 x 2 miles legs on a lap taking in the Esplanade, sharp left and a long downhill into town then left again and a sharp up and down Tower Road back to sea. Ballydrain were the 1972 winners ahead of Achilles and North Belfast. The same three clubs took the honours in the Horner Road Relay at Balmoral with Achilles winning on this occasion.

The Cross Country season began with North Belfast winning the McConnell Shield led home by Dessie Martin. The Malcolm Cup returned to its roots by being held in Lurgan for the first time since 1926. The trophy had been presented to South Lurgan Harriers by Mr. C. Malcolm then Chairman of the Lurgan Urban District Council and ad been taken over by Queens University when South Lurgan folded. It is now of course in the hands of Annadale Striders. Dessie Martin followed up his McConnell win with victory ahead of John Allen with Achilles taking their third title in a row.

As with has happened in 2011, 1972 saw the start of a new Cross Country League the difference being that the strength of teams required it to be run in three divisions.   The eyar came to an end with Cross Country at the New University of Ulster and the West Down Cup at Dundonald and the Comber Cup 12 mile Cross Country relay The West Down was won by local club Willowfield with Prices filling three of the first four places. Denis was first, Tom third and Gerry fourth.

One other major sporting event held in Belfast in 1972 also has a somewhat tenuous athletics link. The world famous All Blacks Rugby team played Ulster at Ravenhill in November with the New Zealanders winning by 19-6. There is of course a strong connection between Ulster and New Zealand rugby as their most prestigious trophy the Ranfurly Shield was presented in 1902 by Uchter John Mark, Earl of Ranfurly and a native of these shores. Back at Ravenhill the man of the match was generally recognised to be the Ulster winger Joe Miles – now a regular figure on the road running scene and one of the Lunchtime Legends.

The major event of 1972 was of course the Olympic Games the repercussions of which still have a major effect on Track and Field athletics in Northern Ireand to this day. There can be little doubt that were it not for the victory of Mary Peters in the Pentathlon on the 2nd and 3rd of September 1972 it is highly unlikely that Belfast would have had a tartan track a couple of years later or that it would have hosted the major meetings that it has done over the intervening years. Mary’s influence in getting the World Police and Fire Games for 2013 and the redevelopment of the track due in 2012 is also immense.

When she set foot on the track at 9.30 am on the Saturday morning of the first day she ranked fifth of the contenders for the Gold Medal. Adding together all her individual personal bests for the five events she was over 100 points adrift of the two Germans (one East and one West) Heidi Rosendahl and Burglinde Pollock. Needless to say of course that the Germans (especially Rosendahl) were on home territory and had the support of the 80000 crowd.

Mary opened up with a new personal best of 13.29 in the 100 metres hurdles to lie in second place. A pentathlon personal best of of 16.20 metres in the Shot saw her take the lead but she knew that her second day was weak in comparison to her rivals. The High Jump completed the first day and was in this event that Mary really won the Gold. Entering the competiton with a lifetime best of 1.78 she simply went into orbit on the day. Left on her own as she went clear at 1.78 on her first attempt she thrilled the crowd with first time success at 1.80 and 1.82 giving her a cushion of just under 100 points going into the second day.

At 11.00 am the next morning a capacity crowd arrived expecting World Long Jump record holder Rosendahl to make up ground in her speciality event, and she did not disappoint coming within a centimetre of her best with 6.83 metres. Mary responded with a near personal best of 5.98 metres and the stage was set for a memorable last event.

The German duo had personal best 200 metres times well in excess of Mary’s and despite the lead she had it meant she had to finish within 0.4 seconds of Pollock and 1.4 seconds of Rosendahl. Mary drew lane 3 in the fourth and final heat with Pollock just inside her and Rosendahl in lane 6. Following a good start Mary was holding her own against the East German but Rosendahl hit the straight in the lead and moved further away as they approached the tape which she broke in a tremendous 22.96 into a head wind. Mary crossed the line fourth and the suspense was incredible. The delay was long enough for statisticians to work out that Mary needed 24.18 for Gold. After what must have seemed an eternity 24.08 flashed on the big screen and the celebrations began. He had won by 10 points ( one tenth of a second – 3 centimetres in the long jump – 15 centimetres in the Shot – less than 1 centimetre in the High Jump or 0.05 seconds in the Hurdles.)

Mary returned to Belfast in triumph and was paraded through the city in an open lorry. Asked what reward she wanted for achievements she said ‘a track’. Less than a month later an advert appeared in the local press appealing for money for the Mary Peters’ Track Fund. It read.

“Tartan track surface is now an essential feature of an athletes training. Most countries who are successful in the Olympic Games already have these modern tracks. By supporting the Fund you can help to achieve future Gold Medals for Ulster.”