Olympic race-walking hero
Tuesday 10 October 2006
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.
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