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A day in the life of Mary Peters

A day in the life of Mary Peters
Steven Downes for the IAAF

It is more than a quarter of a century since Mary Peters won her Olympic gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics, yet the British pentathlete remains a popular and recognisable figure in her sport and in her home city of Belfast, venue for this weekend’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships. Ever since her moment of greatest triumph, Peters was a driving force behind athletics, and other sport, as a means of bringing peace, harmony and normality to Northern Ireland, the province that has been so troubled by conflict during the past four decades. So it is hardly surprising, then, that this former British athletics team manager and - until last year - president of the British federation, has also been closely involved in the organisation for the 27th IAAF World Cross Country Championships. "There really isn’t any such thing as a typical day for me - I always seem to be travelling to one place or another. I reckon I’ve probably had more than 30 flights already this year, to attend meetings in England and elsewhere, and we’re not even through March yet. "I used to manage my own fitness centre here in Belfast, until about two years ago. But after 20 years of working in the place, doing 12- and 15-hour days all year round, plus everything else I was doing, working on various boards of charities, the Northern Ireland Sports Council, and with the local tourist board, I decided to sell up.

"It was just after I had taken over as the honorary president of the British Athletic Federation, which was a great honour for me, and saw me travelling even more. But it also enabled me to be involved at another level with the organisation of these world championships.

"The status as president of the National Federation meant that I could approach Dr Primo Nebiolo, the president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, and ask him if the IAAF could provide extra funding for the staging of these Championships. After all, Northern Ireland is not a huge place - there’s only about 300,000 people living here - and so there are not the sort of large business concerns that we can go to for additional sponsorship outside the main sponsors of the IAAF. So, after all the help we‘ve been getting through the NI Sports Council, the university and from Belfast City Council, we still needed extra help from the IAAF, and Dr Nebiolo was able to give that to us.

"Yesterday, I flew back into Belfast in the morning, and I had two meetings to attend in the afternoon, one with the tourist board and one with the organising council for the championships. Everything seems to be going very smoothly, thanks a great deal to an amazing young man working on the event called Noel Munnis.

"Both meetings were discussing this weekend’s event. For people who have never been to Northern Ireland before, they might not appreciate quite how important the World Cross Country Championships are to Belfast. It is the first international sports championships to be staged here since 1961, when the Open Championship in golf was here. So, for the first time in a very long time, the Championships will give the world a chance to see Northern Ireland in a different context from what they have become used to. "It will be a very busy sporting weekend, too, because on Saturday afternoon, Northern Ireland are playing against Germany in a European football qualifying game at Windsor Park, just down the road from Barnett Demesne, where the cross-country is being staged. It’s a nice combination of international sport, and we hope that if the weather’s fine and spring-like, there will be a big crowd to watch the running.

"There’s a real feeling of optimism about the place here at the minute, and having these events here is contributing to that. The university has even changed its term times, encouraging students to go off on their Easter holiday early to free up the accommodation for all the competitors arriving here this week.

"Trying to stage any sort of normal sport here in the past was very difficult, but things have changed a great deal of late. "The last time we staged the Cross Country Championships here was in 1956, when a French runner, Alain Mimoun won the title. My brother, who’s been living in Australia for 40 years, gave me one of the badges he was given when working on the course as a volunteer for those Championships. The course then was at the Balmoral Showground, which is not far from where this year’s event is being staged, and it is where we will be holding the final party for the athletes after the event.

"It’s just giving us all such a buzz. It is important to sport, obviously, but as vice-chairman of the local tourist board, I also know how important the event is to tourism, to let people regard Belfast as a place that they want to come to visit.

"The course is looking gorgeous - we’ve not had much rain at all for more than a month, so it is firm under foot - I know some people were concerned in January that the course might be too wet and boggy, but everything seems to have dried out now, and they’ve been putting the stands up this week. It will be a great couple of days of athletics."