Laureation address – Dame Mary Peters

Thursday 24 June 2010

Dame Mary Peters

Dame Mary Peters
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws

Laureation by Dr Barbara Murray
School of English
Thursday 24 June 2010

Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Dame Mary Peters for the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

I am presenting Dame Mary to you, Chancellor, although—as Olympic athletes—neither of you needs introduction to the other. In the Tokyo Olympic Games of 1964, and with the British athletics team, our Chancellor competed in the 100m relay and 200m events, and our honorary graduand in the pentathlon. In this respect alone we are in the presence of two very remarkable people, but there is a great deal more to be said and—today—it is Dame Mary whom we are seeking to honour.

From Dorset to Stratford-on-Avon to Ecclefechan, counties, towns and villages are rightly proud of their famous sons and daughters but, with Dame Mary, it has seemed to me that she is perhaps equally proud of her places, both of birth and upbringing. Mary Peters was born in Halewood on Merseyside, but the family moved to Ballymena in Northern Ireland when she was eleven. It was here, therefore, that she worked at developing her astonishingly versatile athletic talent—in conditions, I suspect, that were very different from those of the Springhill Athletics Arena in Rochdale which Dame Mary opened in the summer of 2006—with (and I quote all the adjectives) its “International Association of Athletics Federation-standard, 6-lane, 400-metre, synthetic, running track with spectator seating, floodlighting and a full range of track and field facilities”. While athletics training in any venue must call for iron self-discipline, training in the 1960s, and across so many disciplines for the pentathlon, must have been peculiarly spartan in comparison with this.

In a laureation address one does, of course, want to celebrate the great moments: the long list of major athletic achievements, with the shot as well as in the pentathlon. Mary Peters represented Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games from 1958 to 1974, winning gold or silver medals in 1966, 1970 and 1974, and setting twenty-five British records. Having very narrowly missed a medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, she competed—against injury—in Mexico in 1968, and went on to take the pentathlon gold and a World Record in the Munich Olympics of 1972—winning by one-tenth of a second in the vest numbered 111. It is said that her comment afterwards was: “The crowd was fantastic. It was just like the Kop.” She was voted BBC Sports Personality of that year. These public achievements did not just occur, however; one can only dimly imagine the determination, the dedication, the effort, the endurance and, I’m sure, sometimes the suffering, by which these inspirational split-seconds were created. To run and jump, to throw and leap with such prodigious skill, is truly remarkable—but the talent is only one remarkable feature in the life of a remarkable person.

The early seventies was a time when Northern Ireland was suffering deeply from the Troubles. It is said that Mary’s win brought a temporary calmness to the Province; and I myself can still remember the joy more generally with which her win—the only British gold of the Games—was greeted; and I still remember her wonderful smile. Later on, as an athletics administrator she was the women’s team manager at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, and for four years a member of the Women’s Committee of the International Amateur Athletics Federation. She has been a member of the Northern Ireland Sports Council, and is Patron of the Northern Ireland Amateur Athletic Association; her administrative work in Northern Ireland also includes Deputy Chairmanship of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. She has also served on the British Sports Council and as President of the British Athletics Federation between 1996 and 1998. In addition she works to foster the benefits of sport and adventure in young people: she is President of the Mary Peters Trust (formerly the Ulster Sports Trust which was re-named in her honour in 2008)—the Trust aims to aid youngsters in developing their sporting talent. She has been a trustee of the Outward Bound Trust UK, as well as Vice President of the Northern Ireland Outward Bound Association—and Patron of the Springhill Hospice in Rochdale. It has been estimated that she has raised more than £300,000 for charity.

Mary Peters has been awarded Honorary Degrees from five universities. She was also honoured with the MBE in 1973 and the CBE in 1994; she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2000, and Lord Lieutenant of the County Borough of Belfast on 9 August last year.

There is a wonderful online picture of Mary Peters sprinting in the celebrated treble-one vest: every fibre of her is straining in concentration. This celebrated number has a history, I believe. Her car number-plate, GX1 11, seems to have been greatly coveted—albeit not, as it turned out, for the number 111 by a shrewd collector of athletics memorabilia, but for the letters GX—by a misguided citizen of Gerrard’s Cross! Much more fittingly the great athlete who wore the treble one vest, has been properly prized by our near neighbours in Fife—the then members of Treble One Squadron RAF, who—I believe—adopted Mary Peters as their mascot when she visited their bases in Norfolk and, later, in Leuchars.

Writing a laureation, I have discovered, is a little like making a patchwork quilt (and Dame Mary will know what I mean). There will be, perhaps, the main colour carried through the whole but speaking to a central motif; but there will also be more muted corners and maybe some much loved scraps of fabric that carry old and happy associations. Patchwork quilts can have meaning. Beyond her public sporting prowess and administrative talent, it is clear that Mary Peters is much loved: those who hear her speak find her “inspirational”, and she is clearly remembered, by those who have met her, with affection as well as admiration. While one of the great sportswomen of the Twentieth Century may have become a “raving tigress” (as I have seen her described) in the Olympic arena, Mary Peters is testimony to the virtues of dedication, humility and grace that sport can, and should, foster.

Rudyard Kipling recommended filling unforgiving minutes with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run. Split seconds are no less unforgiving but, seized and filled as Mary Peters has been doing all her life, they are worth the gold that inspires, creates and dedicates.

Chancellor, in recognition of her major contribution to British sport, I invite you to confer on Dame Mary Peters the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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