Mary Peters: “a feeling of sheer ecstasy and a moment I never dreamt would happen to me”

Great Britain’s Mary Peters competed in the pentathlon at the Olympic Games in 1964, 1968 and 1972, winning gold in 1972 with a world record points total. She played a major role in the Opening Ceremony of London 2012, carrying the Olympic torch inside the stadium just prior to the cauldron being lit.

Picture by IOC

My first Olympic Games were in Tokyo in 1964 and I wasn’t going to miss the Opening Ceremony for anything. It was just amazing. I felt such pride to be at my first Olympics and to be walking with the rest of the British team behind the Union Jack. I felt much more emotional at that Opening Ceremony than I had anticipated- it was a feeling of sheer ecstasy and it was a moment that I never dreamt would happen to me.

In those days, we used to march as a team in time to the music that was playing- we were all marching in step whereas now, the athletes all dawdle in taking pictures with their mobile phones but we were much more orderly and regimented. We all felt so proud and we marched with so much joy and privilege, it was just a fantastic feeling.

Tokyo 1964
Picture by IOC

The most emotional part of the ceremony for me was definitely the raising of the Olympic flag and the releasing of the doves which symbolised peace. I think every single athlete, even back then, was just so proud to be an Olympian.

My second Olympic Games were four years later, in Mexico City, in 1968. That Opening Ceremony was very different to four years before and actually, every Opening Ceremony is very different because they all have their own style and their own personality. I remember that the British team were all dressed in bright pink at that ceremony.

I think the Opening Ceremony is particularly special for track and field athletes because that’s where we will be competing just a few days later and so it helps you get something of a feel for the stadium and you are able to experience the crowd before you actually compete. Back then, the athletics programme began early in the Games and sometimes the team management didn’t like you to go if you’re competing very soon afterwards because it can be draining but luckily for me, I was able to go to all three Opening Ceremonies. The scale of the ceremonies back then was completely different to the huge scale of them now; in 1964, there was only 93 nations competing whereas now, there’s over 200 so the Games have grown considerably. And nowadays, the teams are much larger so the Opening Ceremonies take far, far longer.

For me, a huge part of being at the Olympic Games is being there for the start and the finish of them but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go to the Closing Ceremony in 1964 or 1968 because in those days, I wasn’t a full-time athlete, I was working full-time so had to go home to get back to my job.

Munich 1972
Picture by IOC

My final Olympic Games as an athlete were in 1972, in Munich, and once again, the British team had a pretty distinctive uniform for the Opening Ceremony; we were in lilac and purple and I still have my hat, it was a boater with a purple and lilac ribbon on it. Again, I remember being so proud to be part of the team but little did I know that just a few days later, I would win a gold medal and it would change my life forever.

I knew for certain that Munich would be my last Olympic Games and that was an incredibly emotional feeling. You never think about what will happen if you are successful though, and I could never have imagined that I would be involved in another Olympic Games so many years later.

In 2012, just a few weeks before the London Olympics began, I was asked by Sebastian Coe to be involved in the Opening Ceremony. I was one of seven GB gold medallists who handed the Olympic flame to seven young athletes who had been selected - one of them by myself - who then lit the cauldron. It was just an amazing experience, I absolutely loved it. I’ll never, ever forget that moment.

When we’d handed our flames over to the young athletes, we all linked arms and it was as though we were welded together with pride. It was such a privilege to be a part of that moment and the entire Opening Ceremony was just an incredible event.

I did go to the Closing Ceremony in London in 2012 and it was just magic. It had been such an amazing couple of weeks and the sheer joy of the people of London who took sport to their hearts was fabulous. I have to admit that at the Closing Ceremony in London, I was very tearful. It’s emotional if you’re an Olympian and to be part of something so unique is quite incredible.