40 years on, Mary Peters says Munich is still weeping… how terrorism scarred the Olympics
01:08 GMT, 13 May 2012
Golden moment: Mary Peters wins the gold medal in the women's pentathlon at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972
To those strolling through the neatly kept Olympic Park here on Wednesday, the two silver-haired women sharing a hug looked like old friends bumping unexpectedly into one another.
But this was not a random meeting. Dame Mary Peters had returned to this city where she had shaped and defined her life to commemorate the 40th anniversary of her Olympic triumph in the pentathlon.
And the woman embracing Peters was
her closest rival Heide Rosendahl, a West German athlete, who won two
gold medals in Munich, but who was beaten to the pentathlon title by the
blink of an eye.
The years have been kind to both.
Rosendahl is a 65-year-old grandmother, who married her American
sweetheart John Ecker and has two sons, David, 36, and Danny, 34, a
pole-vaulter who has been to three Olympic Games.
Peters is a national treasure, at 72 the Lord Lieutenant of Belfast.
'Sharing this anniversary with someone you competed against feels so
emotional,' said Peters, holding the hand of her old athletic foe.
'She is as stylish as I remember.'
The warmth of their reunion melts the decades away.
Rosendahl had begun these Games by winning the long jump gold and ended it with a second from the 100metres relay as 80,000 West Germans screamed her name.
Yet, over a pasta lunch in the Olympic Park, she felt compelled to confess to Peters: 'I could jump pretty good and run pretty good, but at heart I was always a pentathlon girl; this was my favourite event.'
Peters discernibly blushed.
Golden memories: Mary Peters shares the podium with Heide Rosendahl (left) and East German bronze medallist Burglinde Pollak
To be in their company was to eavesdrop on history. For the 1972 Olympics will be forever washed in the blood of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, kidnapped then killed by terrorists calling themselves Black September.
Rosendahl recalled how she had been in the women's highrise accommodation in the Olympic Village as armed German security personnel flooded the area.
Peters, meanwhile, had come back from a shopping excursion for a team-mate's wedding present, 24 hours after she won gold, to a scene of chaos, confusion and ignorance.
This was an age when news travelled slowly, and could be massaged, as Peters discovered.
'I saw a Bulgarian girl in a lift and asked, “What's happening” She replied: “Kidnap, kidnap but everything OK''.'
It was not, of course.
Once the truth emerged of the kidnap, then botched rescue attempt at a nearby airport, the world had been irrevocably changed.
If the Olympic Games could be murderously hijacked for political reasons, then no event, no location, could ever be considered sacrosanct again.
Horror at the Games: Black September terrorists brought bloodshed to the Israeli team quarters
Peters said: 'To us, the Olympics was a celebration bringing together the youth of the world in peace and harmony. At that time, there was no reason for it to be made any more secure than any other event.'
Even as the two women laughed as they pondered old photographs of themselves, surveyed precious memorabilia from their days in Munich four decades past, and watched footage from their duel involving the 100m hurdles, shot putt, high jump, long jump and 200m, there was an undeniable sense of shared heartache.
Rosendahl revealed that as confirmation of the terrorist attack belatedly filtered through to athletes in the Olympic Village, she had gone to the quarters of the Israeli women.
'We'd been in a training camp with them, and I supposed they would be all crying in one another's arms,' she said.
Horror at the Games: Armed German
security personnel prepare to tackle the Black September terrorists
'Instead, they were ready to go on the street and fight. They were soldiers, or acted like them. That gave me the feeling that the Games had to go on, that I had to go on.'
'The Games had to go on after a day of mourning,' she said.
'But I'm still upset that I did not know there was a memorial service here for the Israelis who died.'
Outside the Olympic Stadium, Peters wiped a tear as she visited the memorial erected to the dead men.
'When we were walking alone, Heide told me that the West German and
East German athletes from 1972 will come together at a track meet here
in June, but there is no formal recognition of the 40th anniversary of
these Games,' said Peters.
'I think that Munich still weeps.'
To Peters, the Olympics was ironically a stage to brighten the news agenda in Northern Ireland, if only for a few days.
In 1972, almost 500 people were killed in Sectarian violence in the
Province and she said: 'I wanted to make the people at home happy in
some small way.'
And how she accomplished that ambition.
the first day, she equalled the world record in the 100m hurdles,
recorded her personal best for the shot in pentathlon and soared 5ft 11
in the high jump after everyone else was eliminated.
I see film of myself clicking my heels in the air and blowing kisses, I
am astonished,' she laughed. 'It's so out of character.'
Golden greats: Mary Peters, a 33-year-old secretary with the build of a shotputter, is congratulated by
stylish German pentahlon rival Heide
Rosendahl, 25, in 1972
Reunited in happiness… and tears: Peters and Rosendahl shared their
memories of Mary's triumph in the pentathlon… and the tragedy
of the 11 Israelis killed by terrorists at the Munich Games
From her bag last week she produced her competition bib numbered 111 and presented to her by British team official Arthur Gold.
'Now, that had to be an omen,' chuckled Peters.
But the second day played to the strengths of Rosendahl.
However, the German had a bad break, as she explained.
'I jumped over seven metres and it
was a clean jump, but ruled a foul,' she said. 'It could have given me
the points to win gold.'
But for a reference point she chose the chequered football history between the Germans and England, a metaphor here for Team GB.
'Sometimes a goal is given, sometimes it isn't, so I have no complaints,' said Rosendahl.
'I always considered Mary the favourite. She's British and a fighter, as she showed.'
The fate of the Olympic gold hung on the 200m, tailor-made for Rosendahl.
'It was my worst event,' said Peters.
what seemed an eternity as times were processed into points without a
computer, Rosendahl walked with her arms outstretched towards Peters.
'Only then did I know I'd won Olympic gold,' said Peters, clutching
Rosendahl's hand again, as a TV production team from BBC Northern
Ireland filmed for an upcoming documentary.
'It was such a magical moment. I knew I wouldn't have another chance, you were so much younger.'
Rosendahl replied: 'No, at 26, I was already a grandmother of the track!'
Peters was awarded victory by 0.1sec with an Olympic and world record score of 4,801pts, 10 more than Rosendahl.
At two previous Olympics, in Tokyo, where Peters was fourth, and Mexico, where she finished ninth, she was deemed too congenial to be a champion.
'I'd learned to realise I was too friendly to everybody,' she agreed. 'That's the way I am; I can't change my personality. Yet, by the time we got to Munich I was focused on winning. No way was I going home without a gold medal.'
On your marks: Mary Peters sprints away from the blocks in the 200 metres
But the drama for both women was far from over.
Sinisterly, they both attracted death threats.
Peters was warned at her celebration reception in the Olympic Tower that an Irishman had called the BBC in Munich to warn she would be killed if she returned to Belfast.
Her late father, Arthur, who surprised her by travelling to the Games from his new home in Australia, asked her to go back with him.
'My home was in Belfast, my life was there and the people I loved were there,' she insisted.
When she touched down in Belfast, at an airport surrounded by barbed wire, she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection in such troubled times.
'There was a gold Rolls-Royce for me and a band playing, “Congratulations”. People were hanging over the barbed wire with flowers, it was wonderful. I never felt worried about going home as I always felt comfortable in any part of Belfast. But I wasn't allowed back in my flat for three months.
Flying high: Peters attacks the long jump in 1972 (left) and showing off the gold medal she won in Munich
What Peters did not know until last
week was that Rosendahl had spent the final days of the Games living at a
secret address under armed guard after German authorities received a
threat to her life.
'My boyfriend John, who became my husband, joined me in a hotel,' she explained.
Her practice sessions for sprint relay were held behind closed doors.
'Someone said they wanted to kill me, it was difficult,' said Rosendahl.
much shared history brought these two delightful women together here
last week where they both scaled the peaks of their ability, but can
never forget how these Games were coloured in blood, as well as gold,
silver and bronze.
asked Rosendahl to honour her with her presence at her 40th anniversary
dinner in September at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, where her
legacy is most visible in the shape of the Mary Peters Track and the
Mary Peters Trust.
can't thank Heide enough for coming,' said Peters. 'We both experienced
trauma here, but we are both still rounded people and didn't let it ruin
As she studied the Olympic Stadium a final time, she reflected: 'If I had not been Olympic champion what would I be doing now'
Dame Mary Peters may never have featured in the rich-list, but if fortunes were measured by memories acquired and friendships made, her wealth is incalculable.