Social Science blog

10 August 2010

Celebrate the all-rounder!

Most of the newspapers last week had pictures of Jessica Ennis’s smiling face as she celebrated her victory as European champion in the heptathlon. Actually watching her do it was even better, because then you could see how slight she is, compared to the other competitors, which to me makes her achievement all the more amazing. Heptathletes are clearly a race apart though, with skills necessarily spread over a broader range of endeavour. Are they more complete athletes than other elites? one wonders; not forgetting though that there have been a number of multi-talented performers, Jesse Owens being one of the most celebrated.

The history of the women’s heptathlon is an interesting one. In its current form, it consists of seven track and field events and is the successor of the shorter pentathlon event which it replaced in the 1984 Olympics. The pentathlon itself dates back to the ancient Greek Olympics, and took its place as one of the main events at the Athens Olympics of 1906, but it had a chequered history after that: being dropped and then included; and forever being tinkered with, with the events being swapped round or added to and different versions being adopted. It did generate some wonderful competitors though, whose multi-faceted athletics skills seem to have been reflected in an equally balanced attitude to life.

Mary Peters, the Olympic gold medallist in the pentathlon event in 1972 is a good example. Now a Dame, celebrated for her sporting excellence, charitable work and work within the sport itself, she really demonstrates the advantages of being an all-rounder.

The Library has a recorded interview with Mary Peters which forms part of the Sound Archive’s ‘Oral history of British athletics collection’. In it she tells of her early athletics career – when pentathlon seemed more of a hobby than anything else – to the dramatic effects of the coaching of her new trainer Buster McShane in 1961.

You can read an interview summary by looking at the Library’s Sound Archive catalogue.

Mary Peters. Mary P. Autobiography London: Paul, 1974
London reference collections shelfmark: X629/6254
Lending collections shelfmark: 86/01596

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