Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Mary Peters, Munich Olympics, 1972 - Hope When All Hope Had Gone

And so the individual performances of British Olympians have saved the day despite the corporate ticketing fiasco, a politically dubious opening ceremony and the tumbleweed-strewn and deserted ghost streets of London Open City.

In an earlier post I mentioned Ulster's great Olympian Mary Peters as one of the band of  magnificent Northern Irish sports people of all religions who brought so much pride and self-respect to the country in a time of war. The story of Peters' athletic accomplishments in West Germany in the summer of 1972, her return as a national hero to Belfast on Thursday 21st September  and the subsequent funding of a superb athletics track for the city are oft-recounted to this day.

The political, human and emotional context of her victory is indeed truly extraordinary to recall by way of the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes during the games in Munich at the hands of Black September activists and the toll of 467 military, paramilitary and civilian fatalities in Ulster during the entire year. Her victory took place a month after Bloody Friday in Belfast and seven months after Bloody Sunday in Derry - it would be the worst year of the entire Troubles with nearly 4,876 injuries sustained, 10,628 shooting incidents and 1,382 explosions.

The Munich Olympics in full took place between August 26th and September 10th 1972. Of the fourteen women's athletics events, eleven of the winning medals were won by the German nations and two by Russia. Peters won the solitary athletic British gold on Sunday 3rd September.

On the evening of  September 4th she received a threat from Northern Ireland that harm would come to her as a Protestant who had won a medal for Britain unless she said something about bringing people together. In the early hours of the following morning the Israeli  apartments at the Olympic Village were seized.

On the full archive footage of the opening ceremony Peters can be clearly seen walking with the British team while the brief clip of the Israeli athletes shows at least five individuals in clear shot who would be murdered.

During the period of the Olympics themselves the political situation in Northern Ireland was unrelentingly violent:

- Saturday 26th August - Two Catholic men found shot dead in the Oldpark area of North Belfast. Bomb explosion at Downpatrick Racecourse in County Down killed two IRA volunteers who were planting it.

- Sunday 27th August  - Protestant civilian shot dead in Belfast by loyalist paramilitaries and a British soldier killed by a sniper  in Derry.

- Monday 28th August - Protestant farmer killed by a landmine explosion in County Fermanagh and a British soldier shot dead in West Belfast.

- Wednesday 30th August - Another British soldier murdered in West Belfast.

- Thursday 31st August  - Two Catholic civilians found dead in South Belfast and Portadown - both bodies showing evidence of ill treatment.

- Tuesday 5th September - Protestant member of the local security forces killed by a loyalist explosion in Portadown while driving past in his car.

- Wednesday 6th September - Protestant man found murdered in West Belfast and Catholic woman killed in a loyalist bombing in North Belfast.

- Thursday 7th September - Two Protestant civilians killed by the British Army during street disturbances in the Shankill district of Belfast with another Protestant civilian murdered in the east of the city.

- Sunday 10th September - Three British soldiers killed by a land mine near Dungannon.

Indeed only six months after the games, in March 1973, Peters was relaxing at her North Belfast flat when a honey-trap murder of three British soldiers took place in the immediate next door property - four soldiers in total having been lured to the adjacent building by female Republican activists on the promise of a party only for two IRA assassins to enter with a machine gun and pistol. The soldiers were ordered to lie face down on a bed and then shot. The injured soldier was literally collapsed outside Peters'  property when she opened her blinds.

So Mary Peters from Halewood on Merseyside - who only arrived in Northern Ireland as an 11-year old - won the Olympic gold medal for all the people of Belfast that day. She won it for me and all the boys and girls in my street I played with during that summer of 1972 - three of whom are now dead. She won it for all the pensioners in Belfast who probably had enough life experience already from two world wars, a civil war and a depression without a misjudged and misfiring national liberation struggle coming along to destroy their retirement peace after years of heavy industrial labour. And she won it for all the hundreds of thousands of Ulster people who did nothing to foment or sustain sectarian division - the vast unsung majority of people of goodwill and good conscience.

Duff Hart-Davis' history of the 1936 Berlin Olympiad concludes with the dramatic choreography of the closing ceremony - the dieing light of the protective Olympic flame, the tolling bell,  the lowering of the Olympic flag and the summoning of the youth of the world to Tokyo. Jesse Owens, the black American athlete so central to the narrative of the most propagandised public event in human history, noted in one documentary how most of the athletes that evening who had taken the priceless Olympic oath were in tears of pure emotion at the sense of occasion.

Today in a world literally destroyed by banking institutions and political incompetents -  who have broken our national culture, fractured our social solidarity and sold out our future life security perhaps forever - maybe the Olympics still shines a last pure light onto the human condition and the beleaguered though not utterly extinguished faith that there just has to be something better than hate, greed, regret, selfishness and anger to accompany our very brief time on earth. Or indeed - that by sheer organic logic - life's rich pageant should incorporate natural winners.

Mary Peters here reflecting on the dynamics of the Ulster Troubles in the final chapter of her 1974 autobiography:

There is a world of difference between dejection and despair. I am frequently dejected to the point of tears at what has happened to Belfast. I have never despaired and never shall. It is quite true that the situation has deteriorated considerably during the period in which we prepared this book but to despair, to give up fighting for a solution or the restoration of sanity, is to give up hope and that is the creed of nihilism. I know there is goodness in the hearts of the people of Northern Ireland because I can walk through the streets of the Falls and Shankill and see it every day. Since my retirement from athletics I have been approached to go into politics, both by members of the Conservative and the Alliance parties. But politics, professional party politics, is not my way. I am not a political animal. My philosophy is simply that life is very precious and that every hour of every day must be lived positively. This is the outlook we have lost in Belfast: the feeling that there is little point setting oneself a target to achieve because we do not know what disaster tomorrow is going to bring. It is this attitude I want to work and fight against. It may sound pompous for me to say that this was the example I tried to set on the running track but it is true. Deliberately, everywhere, I ran in the name of Belfast and Northern Ireland to attempt to show the world that our spirit was not dead.

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