Daley Thompson: 'Back then we weren't satisfied. We all wanted to be the best'

Britain's greatest athlete is determined to help arrest the decline in standards for the 2012 Games. Simon Turnbull talks to him
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Daley Thompson has been this way before. In the long, hot summer of 1976, when men were men and Elton John and Kiki Dee were stuck at No 1 in the charts, the great all-rounder's beloved sport was suffering an acute case of what has since become known as "deferred achievement". Britain's track- and-field athletes - the just-turned-18-year-old Thompson among them - returned from the Montreal Olympics with only the one medal between them: a bronze from Brendan Foster in the 10,000 metres.

Thirty years on, after significant deferrals of achievement at the World Championships in Helsinki last summer and the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in March, the British athletics cupboard is looking similarly bare. With a declining stock of established medal contenders, and with a European Championships in Gothenburg next month, a World Championships in Osaka next August and an Olympics in Beijing in 2008 to contest before London 2012 starts to loom on the horizon, a new wave of world-class talent is required with a fair degree of urgency.

Back in 1976, when Britannia's Olympians were in danger of sinking in Montreal, the young saviours were already queueing up to dive in with their rubber rings and their Midas touches. Thompson, 18th in the decathlon in Montreal, struck Olympic gold in Moscow four years later. Steve Ovett, fifth in the 800m in Montreal, did likewise. Sebastian Coe, who made his mark as a 19-year-old in the AAA Championships immediately after the 1976 Games, did so too. Allan Wells, a surprise runner-up to Don Quarrie in the 100m at those AAA Championships, was also a British golden boy in Moscow in 1980.

"We had loads of people coming into the sport back then, and we also had loads of people backing them up," Thompson says, reflecting on that deep pool of talent as he sits in a quiet corner of Gateshead International Stadium. "For argument's sake, and this is purely a guess, I reckon that in the middle of the 1980s our 10th-ranked 1500m runner would be better than our best guy now."

It is not quite a gold medal guess, but it puts Britain's greatest ever all-round athlete on to the rostrum. The fastest British 1500m runner in 2006 is Andy Baddeley, with a time of 3min 36.52sec. It would have ranked him ninth in Britain in 1986 - for the record, behind Coe, Steve Cram, Ovett, John Gladwin, Jack Buckner, Steve Crabb, Peter Elliott and Rob Harrison.

"It was because of all of those second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth-ranked guys that the people at the top were so good," Thompson continues. "They had to be good. Everybody was pushing everybody else, from the bottom upwards.

"That was the great thing for athletics during the 1980s. Even though we were all different people all over the country, it was almost as if we were in the same room all the time. Everyone just wanted to be that little bit better."

In Thompson's case, the domestic competition was not for supremacy in his event. In a decathlon career in which he won two Olympic gold medals, one world title, two European championships, three Commonwealth crowns, and set four world records, he was never beaten by a fellow Briton; unless, that is, you care to count his hamstrung finale, when he pulled up injured in the opening event, the 100m, in a competition staged with the aim of helping him achieve the Olympic qualifying standard at Crystal Palace in 1992.

Thompson's greatest battle within these shores was always with Coe, Ovett, Cram and Co - for column inches and due recognition of his trailblazing achievements in a 10-discipline event that was not considered mainstream. "For me to be anybody, in real terms I had to go out and break the world record," Thompson says. "That was the reality, so that's what I had to go out and try to do. You had to set your sights so much higher.

"The difference now is that people just want to get on the bottom of the Lottery ladder. They want to be the fifth or sixth best in Britain and they're satisfied with that. In the 1980s and 1990s we weren't satisfied. We all wanted to be the best."

Francis Morgan Thompson - "Daley" Thompson, as he is known to the world - has always called it as he has seen it. When he was asked to carry the English flag at the opening ceremony at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane he said that he didn't want to participate in a four-hour parade that would drain his energy for the decathlon. At 47, surveying the state of British athletics at the business end, the uncompromising competitor in him cannot fail to recognise a significant slackening of standards and attitude.

It is a picture he wants to help to readjust for 2012. The Olympic decathlon champion of 1980 and 1984 is already working with some of Britain's emerging young track-and-field talents, offering "coaching guidance and inspiration" as part of the Sainsbury's-backed English Schools Athletic Association "Future Champions" programme. He has been touring the regions, talking to selected groups of youngsters, and was at Gates-head last weekend for the English Schools Championships, in which he won the senior boys 200m in 1975 as "F Thompson of London".

Thompson is also in discussion with UK Athletics about a role with the national governing body, nurturing slightly older talent towards 2012. "At the moment, they don't see the role quite as I see it," he says. "What I want to do is to try to make kids more professional - in terms of lifestyle, training, outlook on life. That isn't quite what they see me doing - not yet - but that's where I think I can make my contribution.

"In my first discussions with UKA they said they thought they had maybe 40 or 50 world-class potential under-23s, and I've been going to track meets just seeing the kind of talent that I would be dealing with. I hope to speak to one or two, and to their coaches, at the AAA Championships."

Thompson cannot remember the last time he attended the Amateur Athletic Association Championships, the 2006 edition of which is incorporated within the Norwich Union European Trials at the Manchester Regional Arena this weekend. "Fifteen, 18 years?" he suggests. "Definitely not since I last competed in them."

That was at Crystal Palace in 1986. Thompson finished third in the 100m, behind Linford Christie and Mike McFarlane. At the time he was the reigning Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth decathlon champion, and the world record holder. Twenty years on, he feels that his experience - and that of other members of his golden generation - is a vital resource waiting to be tapped.

"Well, I think we have the experience about what it takes, how you prepare," he says. "There can't be many coaches in this country who have been in a call room five minutes before you go out and run an Olympic final. That's where races can be lost sometimes, when some little thing throws you out of the right frame of mind.

"The Ovetts, Coes, Crams, Elliotts... John Regis, Roger Black, Kriss Akabusi... all those kind of guys; they've all been there. If we can get some, or all, of those guys involved in some way, shape or form, it can only do good."

As things stand, Thompson's principal professional concern is running "a small fitness and conditioning business". His clients include an Australian Rules football club and two beach volleyball teams in California. His base remains his native London, where he spends much of his time with his four children: Rachel, 18, Austin, 15, Elliott, 13, and Alex, 4. As yet, none of the young Thompsons have shown signs of following in their father's footsteps, although Austin and Elliott play rugby for Rosslyn Park, as a prop and a centre respectively.

Would they fail to recognise the leading athletics lights of today? "No," Thompson says. "They'd recognise a couple of them. But they'd recognise loads of football stars. That's one of the things that nearly all sports - not just athletics - are fighting against. Football just seems to be hoovering up the big numbers and the good-quality talent."

It was different in Thompson's time at the top of the track-and- field tree. Athletics then was back page news (front page at times) and prime-time television viewing. Thompson's rivalry with Jürgen Hingsen, the German he invariably beat to gold and whom he continually eclipsed on the world record front, even made the decathlon big news in Britain.

"I normally see Jürgen once a year," Thompson says of the man he famously labelled "Holly-wood Hingsen". "He brings his family over to watch the tennis at Wimbledon. He's around, and he's healthy. He's even losing weight. I think he's probably going to challenge me at something soon; I suspect I'll take him, as always.

"Yeah, they were great days, but you know what? It was just a great time for the sport. It was a brilliant time. I can't imagine there would ever have been a better time to be in our sport.

"We were professional. We could earn a bit of money, but it was still all about the glory. It wasn't about the fast cars and the women... although I hear they were good."

Life & Times

NAME: Francis Morgan "Daley" Thompson, OBE, CBE.

BORN: 30 July 1958, Notting Hill.

CLUB: Newham and Essex Beagles.

MAJOR DECATHLONS: Olympics: 1976, 18th; 1980, 1st; 1984, 1st; 1988, 4th. World Championships: 1983, 1st; 1987, 9th. European Championships: 1978, 2nd; 1982, 1st; 1986, 1st. Commonwealth Games: 1978, 1st; 1982, 1st; 1986, 1st.

WORLD RECORDS: 1980: 8,622pts; 1982: 8,649pts; 1982: 8,743pts; 1984: 8,798pts.

LANDMARKS: First athlete to hold Olympic, World, European, Commonwealth and European titles in same event. Still holds British record.