London 2012 Olympics: Daley Thompson, the unappreciated hero of British athletics
Despite two Olympic golds and unbeaten for seven years, the decathlete is out of the loop, says Jim White.
London 2012 Olympics: Daley Thompson, the unappreciated hero of British athletics. Daley Thompson high jump.
By Jim White
26 Jul 2011
Daley Thompson, double gold medallist at the decathlon, master of 10 athletic disciplines, for seven years through the Eighties a man entirely undefeated, is characteristically unwavering in who he considers the greatest British Olympian of all time.
“No question, got to be Seb Coe,” he says. “After the 100 metres, the 1500 metres is the most competitive event in world sport. Everyone, everywhere wants to do it. To have won it twice, and been world record holder for so long, he’s our greatest Olympian. Twenty-five years on they’re not running that much faster than he did, that’s the measure of the man.”
It is a generous assessment of his contemporary. But it comes as something of a surprise. Surely the Daley Thompson of old, the irreverent, irascible, anti-establishment genius of British athletics, the man who once stood atop the Olympic podium nonchalantly whistling the national anthem, would have nominated himself, wouldn’t he?
“Course I would, but you’d all laugh at me,” he says. “Nah, even I wouldn’t be that immodest. The greatest? Got to be Seb.”
Coe and Thompson: how great would it be if the home nation were going into the London Olympics with those two at their peak? And you imagine the man himself would love the opportunity to compete now. Doesn’t he look at Jessica Ennis dominating her multi-sport discipline and wish he might be doing the same this time next year?
“Nah, I never go down there,” he says. “My memories are a warm feeling but it’s not something I spend too much time on. Too many people I know spend all their time looking back. I’m having a great time, different, but I’ve got more to think about than the past. You ask me if I’d like to be Jessica Ennis? No way. Have you seen the bloke she’s engaged to?”
That’s Thompson: incapable of speaking two consecutive sentences without going for a laugh. Now 52, living a cheerful portfolio existence as sometime coach, sometime charity fund-raiser, sometime brand ambassador, he is the man who always appeared to take nothing seriously. Except his athletics.
“All I wanted was to be the best at something,” he says. “I didn’t care if it was emptying dustbins, I had to find that thing. I was really lucky my coach said to me when I was about 16: ‘Try decathlon’. It was funny, we had this big stand-up argument, but in the end I gave it a try and that evening I went to bed thinking: ‘Oh, I could be really good at this one’.”
* Daley's decathlons
* OLYMPIC GAMES
1980 (Moscow): GOLD
1984 (Los Angeles): GOLD
1983 (Helsinki): GOLD
1978 (Prague): SILVER
1982 (Athens): GOLD
1986 (Stuttgart): GOLD
1978 (Edmonton): GOLD
1982 (Brisbane): GOLD
1986 (Edinburgh): GOLD
Thompson worked incessantly to become the best. This was in the time before lottery grants, before sports science, before commercial endorsement, when Britain’s athletes had to make it on their own.
“One thing I have in common with Seb,” he says, “we did it despite the facilities and despite the organisation. We were both fortunate to be bloody minded enough not to let obstacles stand in our way. I was there when people started thinking of it as a career, not a pastime. It was the only thing in my life, I tried to do it professionally.
“I struggled financially, a lot of us did. But the struggle was worth it. And because we came at the end of the time of the amateur we were still steeped in that philosophy. We wanted to do it for the glory, for the flag, to put Britain on the map, not for the fast cars and the faster ladies. Mind you, there wasn’t any of that around: I’d have done it for that if there was.”
Does he believe it is too easy now?
“Listen, I don’t want to do the good old days stuff, mainly because the old days weren’t that good,” he says. “But, in terms of facilities, kids now have the best in the world, whereas we clearly had the worst.
“In terms of medical backup, all the scientific stuff, our culture now is as good as anybody’s. Where we might be lacking is that a lot of the kids are not as tough as a lot of us used to be. One thing about those times, they produced hard guys, out there rain, snow, whatever, doing the hard yards. A lot of the kids now still do really well, but could do a lot better if they knuckled down and did those hard yards.”
Extraordinary as it may seem, Thompson is not in demand as a coach in this country. Only one athlete in the Games will have been trained by him: Tamsyn Lewis, the Australian 800m runner. By coincidence, her other coach is Coe. So how come there’s not a long queue of British athletes seeking to drain our greatest practitioners of their knowledge?
“We’ve spoken about it, me and Seb, and I think people are maybe a bit scared to ask,” he says. “People don’t like to be seen not to know stuff. But I’d love to help. If I had the time and the athlete had the inclination, I’d be out there like a shot.”
But maybe this is indicative of the way we have latterly treated Thompson since his running, jumping and throwing glory days. His feats inspired a nation, a million British kids wanted to be an all-rounder as good as him, yet there was nothing put in place to ensure he was followed. In the 27 years since his gold-medal feats, only one Briton (Dean Macey) has competed in top decathlons.
“Yeah, and he wasn’t that good, was he?” smiles Thompson. “It’s difficult to be really good in the decathlon because it takes so long to get good at so many things. But the same could be said of Coe, Ovett and Cram. Nobody followed them. Why? Is that bad planning? Or was it just a lucky time? Maybe it was just luck and no matter what systems you have in place you’ll never replicate that.”
Even now, though, Thompson, far and away the greatest all-round sportsman we have ever produced, is rarely feted, rarely promoted, rarely acknowledged. Never mind being followed, just being credited occasionally would be good. That he isn’t must hurt.
“Nah,” he says. “If other people think that, it’s really nice. It’s not something that keeps me awake at night.”
Mind, he does think it would be nice to be able to get hold of some tickets for next summer.
“I applied, but I didn’t get any for the athletics, just badminton, beach volleyball, table tennis,” he says. “Steve Cram was telling me the BOA has a scheme for former Olympians to buy tickets. Clearly it’s only for ex-Olympians they like, because I’ve not had a sniff of that. Thing is, I’ve got to get some. I’ve got to take my kids to the athletics. Not exposing my kids to the Olympics would be a travesty when it’s on their doorstep.”
Thompson wants them to be there because he thinks London 2012 is going to be something special.
“No doubt in my mind, it’ll be the best sports festival the world has ever seen,” he says. “We love our sport in this country, we organise things well; you only have to see how many people have been trying to get tickets to realise how excited everyone’s going to get.
“And I think we’re going to do better than we did in Beijing and we did unbelievably there. I’ve got a bet with the former Aussie cricket captain Steve Waugh that we’re going to give them guys a good kicking. I’ll win it too. Because for the athletes, to do it in front of your home crowd, what better motivation could you get?”
Was that something he particularly enjoyed, winning for the home crowd? “I never did it,” he says. “I never did one decathlon in England.”
So maybe this is his chance. “If they could use a 52 year-old who’s about 20 per cent of what he used to be, I’ll be straight there,” he says. “Somehow I don’t think they will.”
Daley Thompson is a BT Ambassador. BT is the official communications partner for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.