“Not a smidgeon,” Daley Thompson exclaims when asked if he ever felt any doubt while becoming arguably the greatest British athlete in history. Thompson was unbeaten in the decathlon for nine years, from 1978 to 1987, winning two Olympic gold medals, and at the age of 61 he still holds the British record. His 8,847 points, set in 1984, is a marker of Thompson’s brilliance and a measure of how far British men in the decathlon trail in his wake.
Sitting in his gym in Putney, looking amused, Thompson reiterates his belief which meant he also played professional football for Mansfield Town. “There was never a smidgeon of doubt. When I did my first decathlon I knew I was going to be good.”
I’ve done my research and Thompson’s first decathlon was in Cwmbran in Wales, in 1976. He won the event and set a British junior record. “Good man,” he says, his eyes twinkling.
Reading old, abrasive interviews with Thompson I had felt wary. This morning, however, I just see good humour in his undaunted conviction. Thompson grew up amid racism and deprivation in Notting Hill, which was very different to the affluent enclave of today, and his father was murdered when he was 12. As a star athlete in the 1980s, he offended many with a quip about hoping to have a baby with Princess Anne, riled Carl Lewis by wearing a T-Shirt asking ‘Is The World’s Second Greatest Athlete Gay’ and pointed out lingering British racism. He has never become Sir Daley Thompson.
In an Olympic year, with Katrina Johnson-Thompson one of GB’s best hopes for a gold medal in the heptathlon in Tokyo, it seems crazy his knowledge is not being utilised by British sport. Thompson has only coached two athletes – Erki Nool, the Olympic decathlon champion in 2000 and Tamsyn Lewis, who won gold in the world indoor 800m in 2008.
Nool is Estonian; Lewis is Australian. Thompson shrugs when asked why he never coached in Britain. “I’ve just coached those two – one Olympic champion, one indoor champion. It’s difficult to find athletes who will make the commitment it needs. I don’t want to be more enthusiastic about your career than you are.”
What if a committed British athlete approached him now? “I’d love to help. I’d be over the moon to help.”
Could he have helped Johnson-Thompson when she struggled a few years ago and before she transformed her career by moving to France and becoming the 2019 world champion? “We talked about doing it. But Kat wanted a proper break [from Britain], which has worked well. She’s going to have a great year, and could easily be Olympic champion. I really hope she does all the right work and wins the Olympics.”
Thompson applied for the role of performance director at UK Athletics in 2004 but he did not even make the shortlist. While the GB team enjoyed unprecedented success at London 2012 has he been disappointed with the way the sport is struggling again? “Yeah. London 2012 was a squandered opportunity. I don’t think we put enough resources behind it with a proper plan. We just said: ‘We’re going to have a great Games.’ We did. We had the best Olympics ever. At the last one [in Rio], we were unbelievable again. But occasionally you have to rethink and change things. You have to keep people hungry. So many people I came up with pissed it all away.”
Thompson squeezed everything out of his extraordinary talent. He might have had a fast mouth and a swagger but he trained remorselessly. He loved being pushed to excel by West Germany’s Jürgen Hingsen, who broke his world record. “I never lost to him, and we competed from when we were 18,” points out Thompson, who broke the world record four times. “It was brilliant. He was the only reason I trained eight hours a day.”
Is it an indictment of British athletes that Thompson’s record has stood for 36 years? “The decathlon’s a hard, thankless thing. You have to spend three times longer training than anybody else. You have to train when it’s miserable and you get very little. If you’ve got a reasonable amount of talent in the sprints you get so much more being the 50th best sprinter than the best decathlete.”
Would he have done the same if he was aged 22 today? “No. To be the best in the world is a nice little accolade. But with my last world record I thought I was going to do better than that. I’m the only person to break the world record and not do a personal best in the 10 events. Most people do two or three PBs. I should’ve done a bit better.”
When asked who he most admired as a decathlete he says, instantly, “Bruce Jenner. He was a phenomenal athlete. My hero.”
What does he think of his hero’s subsequent sex change and Bruce becoming the now stratospherically famous Caitlyn Jenner? “[She] must be the toughest person I know because if you have to live as somebody else for 60 years it can’t be easy. I’m cool about it.” Jenner was Olympic champion in 1976 – when Thompson, who had just turned 18, finished 18th. Did he speak much to the American? “All the time. He was really forthcoming. Terrific.”
Thompson regards himself as the best decathlete of all time. Who is No 2 behind him? “There are a couple of people I could make good arguments for and against. Ashton Eaton [the 2012 and 2016 Olympic champion from the US] is not bad. But back in the old days a bloke called Bob Mathias [who won successive Olympics in 1948 and 1952, also of the US] was terrific.”
As a double Olympic champion himself why does Thompson think he was never knighted? “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I don’t care. But the kids would like it. They want to call me sir. For me, the saving grace is always the bloke out there, in the street, likes me. I wouldn’t swap that for any knighthood. Come on, let’s get back to the interesting questions.”
Where did he stand on Brexit? “I supported Brexit. I think we live in the best country in the world. It’s not perfect by any means but I didn’t like loads of people telling me my country can’t survive on its own. So I thought we’d give it a go.”
Remembering his youth, Thompson describes Notting Hill in the 1960s as “a dump. A shithole. Nobody wanted to live there. But many people were a lot worse off than us.”
Did it feel like a mini-version of apartheid, I ask, as Thompson knows I come from South Africa. “No. Our world changed a little faster than yours. Where you guys lived, racism was much more overt. But even now prejudice still exists.”
Thompson was only six when his father left the family. For this reason, the murder of his dad had less impact on him than might have been expected. “He was out of my life anyway. So it did not change me. The only thing I realised, when he died, was what a big family I had because they all came over from Nigeria. Oh my God.”
Does Thompson feel African in any way? “No, I feel really British. My mum [a Scot from Dundee] was the key influence. She gave me this work ethic. I saw what she did, and considered it normal to have three jobs as a cleaner and bring up kids on your own.”
When he told his mum as a teenager that he was going to dedicate his life to sport she said he would need to move out. “She said it as she saw it. She wanted me to stick to my studies but I was luckier than most. I could stay with my aunt. Even when I won my Olympic medals my mum didn’t mellow. She never said she was wrong. But that was her. She gave me a lot. I just loved sport so much.”
Thompson has been associated with Laureus Sports since its inception 20 years ago. As a Laureus Academy member, he is passionate about sport’s ability to unite and inspire. He is also enthused about his friendship with other Academy members. “I’ve built a brilliant relationship with Morne du Plessis, Hugo Porta [former rugby players from South Africa and Argentina respectively] and Steve Waugh [a former Australia cricket captain].”
Has he always followed rugby and cricket? “I’m probably too good-looking for both,” Thompson says, his laughter booming. “Even now.”
We’re way past our allocated time-slot but Thomson wants to keep chatting. “Next, we’re going to talk about one of my best friends who is in charge of the IAAF.”
Seb Coe is the man that Thompson most admires as a fellow athlete. “Yeah. Seb’s got such grit and determination. He’s faced such a hard four years. They’ve had Caster Semenya The Russian drugs thing. The trans-gender thing. And now there’s the shoe thing.”
The IAAF’s new regulations have failed to limit the impact of Nike’s race-changing footwear. Thompson pulls a face. “I don’t think athletics should be about who’s got the best shoes. So Seb has to deal with a lot and he’s done a good job under the circumstances. With women athletes it’s also been blurred by the transgender issue. There are some sports where you can just say ‘I identify as a woman’ even if you are a man. It’s a whole can of worms. I just can’t believe the IOC has not stood up to be counted. I think there should be a safe place for women. I’m all for being inclusive but the sports federations don’t understand the consequences.”
Despite these complexities, will Thompson be in Tokyo? “Of course.” Has he missed an Olympics since his first in 1976? “No. Don’t be silly. It’s the best three weeks in the world. They’ve all been good but you know what? They all pale into insignificance with ours. London was so good. That was the best 12 billion quid we’ve ever spent.”
Why did British sport fail to build on such success? “We were having a holiday, and enjoying it. Then we had to get back to the slog of life. But for three weeks, we were the centre of the universe.”
What about now? Does he ever feel doubt without the intensity of elite competition to bolster his self-belief? “Yeah, I now think I might die before I’m 110,” he says with a smile. “But it’s a good question. I went to a funeral the other day of a guy that coached me in football when I was at Wimbledon. He was six years younger than me. They talked about what he did. I was thinking, if I had to die soon, the only thing that would upset me would be not seeing all the kids grow up. Otherwise, I’ve had the best life. I’ve had an unbelievable life. And it’s still really exciting. I still look forward to every day.”
The 20th anniversary Laureus World Sports Awards honoured the greatest sporting triumphs of 2019, and celebrated the power of sport in transforming the lives of millions of young people.
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