Women’s athletics in the North

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2012), Volume 20

Thelma Hopkins (second left), Maeve Kyle and Mary Peters (third and second from right) departing for the 1958 Empire Games—three outstanding Olympians coached by Franz Stampfl, who also coached Roger Bannister to the world’s first sub-four-minute mile. (Seán and Maeve Kyle)

Thelma Hopkins (second left), Maeve Kyle and Mary Peters (third and second from right) departing for the 1958 Empire Games—three outstanding Olympians coached by Franz Stampfl, who also coached Roger Bannister to the world’s first sub-four-minute mile. (Seán and Maeve Kyle)

In 1949 the North held its first official women’s championships and hired Franz Stampfl to promote athletics in the province. Stampfl would later coach Roger Bannister to the world’s first sub-four-minute mile, and in the North he helped to produce three outstanding Olympians. Thelma Hopkins broke the world high jump record in May 1956 and won an Olympic silver medal the following December. Maeve Kyle, born in Kilkenny, became involved in athletics when she married athletics coach Seán Kyle and moved to Ballymena, Co. Antrim. In 1956 she became the first Irish female athlete to compete at the Olympic Games. In the Ireland of 1956 not everyone approved:
‘Women then didn’t even work after they got married and here I was abandoning my husband and child to travel halfway round the world. I got a few fairly nasty letters.’

 

 

 

Franz Stampfl

Franz Stampfl

The third member of this trio of Northern women was England-born Mary Peters, who would win the pentathlon at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Many other fine athletes were active in Northern Ireland—throwers Louise Grant, Bridget Robison and Gay Porter, and sprinters Pat Kennedy and Adrienne Smith among them.

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