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Munich Magic | Peters clinches Olympic pentathlon gold from Rosendahl in dramatic finale

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  • Munich Magic | Peters clinches Olympic pentathlon gold from Rosendahl in dramatic finale

The 1972 Olympic Games began and ended in triumph for home athlete Heide Rosendahl as she earned long jump gold on day one of the Games and anchored the 4x100m relay team to a final-day victory in a world record of 42.81 ahead of a mighty East German team anchored by Renate Stecher.

Had it not been for the indefatigable competitiveness of Great Britain’s Mary Peters, the West German would have made it a historic hat-trick of gold medals in a dramatic pentathlon competition. 

Peters was 33 at the time of Munich and competing in her third and final Olympic Games while Rosendahl was eight years her junior and coming off the back of a gold medal at the European Athletics Championships in Helsinki 1971. 

Both had earned their first international medals in 1966, with the former earning shot put silver for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica and the latter claiming silver at the European Championships in Budapest where she was competing in the pentathlon. 

A year before the Olympics, Rosendahl had won pentathlon gold and long jump bronze at the European Championships in Helsinki, while Peters – a qualified teacher who held down a full-time job and had to take her shot and starting blocks through a two-bus journey to her local athletics track – had won two Commonwealth titles in 1970.

The Belfast-based athlete, who had moved to Northern Ireland aged eight following a work transfer for her father, had also competed in two previous Olympic pentathlons – at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo she missed a medal by one place, and four years later in Mexico City she finished ninth. 

Rosendahl came to the pentathlon event in Munich with a spring in her step having won the long jump title by a centimetre with a first-round effort of 6.78m – just six centimetres shy of the world record she had set two years earlier at the World University Games in Turin. 

One of the greatest clashes in Olympic history begins 

But in front of 80,000 fans - including a large contingent of travelling British fans which included Mary’s father who had travelled from Australia - who packed eagerly into the Olympic Stadium in Munich, Peters made the ideal start. She equalled her personal best in the opening 100m hurdles with a time of 13.29, the second best in the event, before winning the shot put with a mammoth 16.20m. 

After two events she led the overall standings with 1920 points and she would never be overtaken – although it would be an extremely close-run thing in the end. 

Peters was to further extend her lead in the high jump, raising her lifetime best all the way up 1.82m. Having not got to grips with the Fosbury Flop technique which had revolutionised the event, Rosendahl was limited to a 1.65m clearance with the increasingly out-of-favour straddle-technique in the high jump and ceded a 301-point deficit to Rosendahl overnight. 

Peters’ prospects of victory looked exceedingly healthy but she knew that the concluding long jump and 200m were Rosendahl’s specialities and her own weakest events. 

The West German made up huge ground by winning the long jump with 6.83m, just a centimetre shy of her own world record although admittedly wind-assisted, while Peters underperformed to the extent that she failed even to register a six-metre jump, having to settle for 5.98m, which meant her lead going into the final event had been reduced to 122 points and an anxious wait before the concluding 200m later in the day. 

"I went back to my room, I couldn’t even eat. Tears again, nerves, apprehension. As I lay there some of the girls came in and they were saying what are you worrying about, you’ve got a gold medal. I said 'I know, but I want the gold. I wanted it so much,'" said Peters in an in-depth interview with Athletics Weekly after the 1972 Olympic Games.

Peters holds on for gold...but only just

Both rivals competed in the fourth and final heat, which was won by Rosendahl in 22.96, the fastest time of the day. 

As she crossed the line the West German finished with 4791 points, surpassing by 16 points the world record held by East Germany’s Burglinde Pollak who would come away with bronze - one of many silver and bronze medals in her career.

It was a record Rosendahl held for all of 1.12 seconds before Peters, straining every sinew, came home fourth in the heat, and sixth overall, in 24.08. 

There was an agonising wait until the totals were confirmed – but it ended in triumph for Peters, who had earned gold by just 10 points and one-tenth of a second, setting a world record of 4801. 

Rosendahl moved on to another golden compensation in the women’s sprint relay, where she brought her team home ahead of an East German quartet boasting the mighty individual 100 and 200m champion Renate Stecher. 

Further accolades awaited the pair later in the year as Rosendahl was chosen for the second time as German Sportswoman of the Year and Peters – who had to stay away from her Belfast flat for three months upon her return after receiving death threats from republican terrorists - was named as BBC Sports Personality of the Year award after securing Britain’s only athletics gold of the Games.

Peters’ gold medal in the pentathlon was just one of a slew of British successes in the combined events beginning with Mary Rand’s silver medal at the 1964 Olympic Games and continuing through until the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha where Katarina Johnson-Thompson won gold, surpassing Jessica Ennis-Hills’s British record in the process.

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