The Sunday Telegraph - Sport
‘I want to have a 47-year celebration – like Mary’
Ahead of a huge summer in Tokyo, Katarina JohnsonThompson is inspired by a true Olympic legend’s feats
Deep within the bowels of a forgettable hotel, laughter emerges from a windowless back room where a historic meeting is taking place on a particularly dreich Glasgow afternoon. One brief television studio encounter aside, this is the first time Mary Peters and Katarina Johnson-Thompson have properly spoken and there is more than a small sense of awe from the latest in the long line of great British female multi-eventers towards the woman who helped start the succession.
“I’m not going to lie, I don’t think I could cope under those conditions,” says a disbelieving Johnson-Thompson, as Peters regales her with stories of training hardship.
There are myriad similarities between the pair; for Peters’s 1972 Olympic pentathlon title see JohnsonThompson’s world heptathlon gold last year. And despite Peters’s proud Northern Irish heritage, it emerges that the town in which she spent the first 11 years of her life – Halewood, just outside Liverpool – is also where Johnson-Thompson was brought up. There must be something in the water.
But in the 48 years since Peters became the first British athlete to win a global multi-events title, it is the differences between the pair that are most striking – none more so than the evolution from an era when elite Olympic sport was still very much amateur to the professional, sanitised world Johnson-Thompson inhabits today.
Peters, 80, is one of life’s more compelling, effervescent orators.
Having never married or had children, her life has been devoted to inspiring others – especially young girls – into sport and Johnson-Thompson, 27, is no different to any other audience in finding it impossible not to be captivated by her many tales.
“I didn’t have a track,” recalls Peters of life as an athlete in Belfast in the Sixties and Seventies. “The Troubles were at their height, so that’s why getting two buses across the city to training was difficult.
“I had to carry my shot and starting blocks with me on the bus …”
“God, they are really heavy!” interjects Johnson-Thompson”.
“… and it was always raining. The track that I did train on was full of potholes. I did most of my preparation in the university gymnasium indoors: hurdling and high jumping and shot putting.
“I didn’t have that much talent, but I worked really hard at it and it all came together in the end.”
Without the ability to earn money through sport, Peters worked first as a teacher and then full-time as a secretary once the school had grown tired of her taking time off for athletics.
On one memorable occasion, she ran into a glass door while practising her sprinting in a school corridor and shattered both panes. Her high-jump technique was honed by flinging herself into a swimming pool. All the while, bombs would regularly be heard in the distance.
“I find it crazy that you describe yourself as just a hard worker and not talented,” says an astonished JohnsonThompson, “when you’re doing those events and jumping those heights in the conditions and training facilities you had. You’re obviously putting yourself down.”
Modest in the extreme, Peters just laughs and denies any natural talent that helped earn her to an Olympic and three Commonwealth titles, instead deflecting her young successor’s protestations by insisting she never found the hard work a “chore”.
“All I wanted was to enjoy the sport,” she says. “I really didn’t have great ambition, because it wasn’t talked about like it is nowadays.
“The pressure on Kat is so much greater. Nobody knew who I was. But Kat has the expectation of the country to do so well, because you are such a success story.
“I’m happy the way it was for me. I would have liked to have made a little bit of money, but they were good years and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
That absence of pressure was in no small part down to the lack of attention paid to sportswomen half a century ago. When Peters made her Olympic debut in Tokyo in 1964 alongside her fellow multi-eventer and inspiration Mary Rand, they were two of just 44 women in a British team that featured 160 men. Rand’s long-jump victory was the first Olympic athletics gold by a British woman.
While the pair were undeniably pioneers, Peters insists she was never bothered by the different treatment of men and women.
“I was just an athlete enjoying the joy of competition, travel and friendship,” she says. “I wasn’t really conscious of it. That’s how it was and you just accepted it really.”
It will be a vastly different story this summer when Britain are expected to have more women than men competing for the first time as the Olympics return to the Japanese capital.
The shift will be felt even more greatly in athletics, where almost all of Britain’s individual medal hopes – including Dina Asher-Smith, Laura Muir and Jemma Reekie – are women.
Johnson-Thompson is perhaps the biggest gold-medal candidate of them all, as she attempts to follow Peters, Denise Lewis and Jessica Ennis-Hill in winning Olympic pentathlon or heptathlon gold.
The reigning world champion admits it is “hard not to think” about the Olympics, her focus since she missed the podium in Rio four years ago and decided to uproot her life to a new training base in Montpellier.
Her preparations to realise Olympic gold will mean she completes a low-key heptathlon at the University of Georgia next month before spending the summer focusing on individual events, the last of which will be the Muller Anniversary Games at the London Stadium just before she flies out to Japan.
“This year they are just before the Olympics so it will provide a great platform for all athletes to hone their form and put some finishing touches in place just ahead of travelling to Tokyo,” she says.
“The crowd is always amazing in that stadium so I hope it will re-create the atmosphere I’ll feel in Tokyo.”
Should she back up her world title with an Olympic crown, she will etch her name even deeper in the pantheon of British athletics greats and – jokes Peters – secure a legacy she can dine out on for the rest of her life.
“I never thought, ‘What will happen to me if I stand on that rostrum?’” says Peters. “But when it happened it was amazing. It’s 47/48 years ago now since I had my success, but I am still celebrating – still partying!”
“I want to do that,” says JohnsonThompson. “I want to go on a 47-year celebration.” And again they both break into laughter.