Don Thompson

Olympic race-walking hero

Donald James Thompson, insurance clerk and athlete: born Hillingdon, Middlesex 20 January 1933; married 1967 Maggie Ball (one son, one daughter); died Frimley, Surrey 3 October 2006.

In 1960, Don Thompson became a national hero when he won a gold medal in the 50km walk at the Rome Olympic Games. Race walking was (and remains) one of the most arcane events in international sport and the image of Thompson rocking into the Olympic stadium, with a handkerchief stitched on to the back of his peaked hat by his mum to protect him from the heat, was an abiding one.

The Italians already knew the slightly built Thompson as "Il Topolino" ("The Little Mouse"), a name bequeathed to him at a race in Milan in 1955. Now, he was Britain's Topolino too.

The Thompson story was further embellished, when the athlete related how he had prepared for the Games. Four years earlier, in the Melbourne Olympic Games, Thompson had collapsed with dehydration at the 45km mark, when he was lying in fifth place. (It turned out to be the only race he didn't finish.) Conditions in Rome threatened to be equally oppressive for the walkers, who would spend almost four and a half hours on the cobbled and concrete streets of the Italian capital, so Thompson took steps to make sure that the events of Melbourne did not repeat themselves.

In an attempt to acclimatise his body to the arduous conditions, Thompson, ever a meticulous man, improvised a hothouse in the tiny bathroom of his mother's house in Cranford, Middlesex. With the door and window closed, he switched on the electric wall heater and boiled a kettle on a valour stove he had brought into the room.

The temperature in Rome was, as predicted, in the high eighties at the start of the race. But when Thompson won the gold medal, drawing away from Sweden's John Ljunggren in the last 5km, to claim Britain's only athletics title at the Games, the preparation of the insurance clerk was widely hailed as the reason for his success.

Thompson, himself, was not so convinced. Two years ago, prior to the Athens Olympics, when asked how Paula Radcliffe should prepare for the marathon, Thompson gave an unexpected answer:

I trained in the bathroom about three times a week, from May to September, but I didn't stay in there long each time and I think it was more

about a boost to my confidence. I think I did myself a lot of good by staying in England to prepare. Whether all this heat acclimatisation is any good, I'm not so sure. I didn't do any serious work when I got to Rome, and I was very happy only to experience the heat in the race itself.

Thompson had become a race walker by accident, aged 18. In March 1951, unable to compete in a road relay for his club, Thames Valley Harriers, because of a minor injury, he switched to the walk. Naturally, he won. His début was over five miles; Thompson soon discovered that, the further he went, the better he got.

In his prime, Thompson simply had no peers in Britain. For eight straight years, he won the prestigious London-Brighton and the record he set in 1957, of seven hours, 35 minutes and 12 seconds, was still intact when the event held its final race in 2003.

Thompson also won a bronze medal in the 50km event at the European championships in Belgrade in 1962, but, as prolific as his achievements were, his athletics career was not just about success. Thompson lived and breathed his sport.

In 1991, when he was 58, he was still fit enough to do himself justice in a international 200km walk in France. It made him Britain's oldest-ever athletics international. And, when he was not race walking, he was running. Marathons and half-marathons were top of the list. He set targets for himself, and rigorously set about achieving them. He wanted to complete 150 half-marathons and he did; 100 marathons, and he did that easily (finishing with 150).

At the Thanet Marathon in 1983, he fell with about a mile and a half to go and broke his collarbone. Thompson simply got up and finished the race. He drove home, very carefully, using only his good arm, and waited for his wife to come home to take him to hospital.

Thompson still wanted to train the next day, but with his arm strapped up could not tie his shoelaces. Maggie, his wife, did not want to get up at the unearthly hour that Thompson trained, so she tied up his shoelaces before they went to bed, and he slept in his running shoes.

For the last 25 years of his life, most of his race walking and running was done at Folkestone Running Club, latterly with a group of septuagenarians, who were still fit enough last summer to be running 10km races in around 67 minutes.

In March, Thompson moved from Hythe in Kent to Fleet in Hampshire to be closer to his family. When he was first hospitalised from an aneurysm, the doctors could not understand why he was so agitated at 4am every morning. It had to be explained that it was the time he got up each day for his run.

Thompson was a gentle and modest man on the one hand, and an utterly dedicated athlete on the other; extraordinarily disciplined, meticulous in preparation, and utterly focused in the execution. He was also a one-off in British sport - a magnificent one-off.

Peter Nichols

The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?