Daley Thompson: 'I am hoping one day to be a nice bloke too...'

Outspoken double Olympic decathlon champion is keeping a low profile in the run-up to the London Games but he's still out and about, helping in schools. Just don't ask him to wear a suit. Alan Hubbard meets Daley Thompson
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The Independent Online

When he was at his prodigious athletic peak back in the Eighties, Daley Thompson was famously labelled as "objectionable, charmless and rude" by a broadsheet critic. And in truth, as far as most of the media were concerned, he really was a pain in the butt.

Not that it ever bothered him. Nor does it now that he has mellowed into middle age, a doting father who, when we caught up with him at the Laureus World Sports Awards – of which he is an Academy member – in Abu Dhabi last week, chatted chirpily about how happy he is kicking a ball around in the park with his kids.

With two Olympic gold medals, four world records, three Commonwealth titles and victories in the World and European Championships, there is no arguing that the obsessive machine we called "10 times Daley" must be considered the greatest all-round athlete Britain has ever produced. Ten disciplines but a single mind.

His was the ultimate event of the decathlon: two days over 100m, 400m, 1500m, 110m hurdles, high jump, pole vault, long jump, discus, javelin, shot put. In 1984, Thompson was the first athlete for three decades to successfully defend the Olympic decathlon title with a performance which is still a UK record. His devotion to athletic duty (famously training on Christmas Day) was legendary, bloody-minded and positively masochistic.

Yet curiously, unlike many other superannuated superstars, he does not have a high profile with London's 2012 organisation despite his long-term friendship with Lord Coe; nor is he bothered at not being invited to pass on his knowledge and experience to putative Daley Thompsons because, he shrugs, there simply aren't any.

"It is tough finding kids these days who want to do the hard yards," he says. "I don't think it's anything like it used to be, of wanting to put effort in and that kind of stuff. I don't know why but I suspect it's endemic in the whole of the western world.

"People don't want to serve apprenticeships any more. Kids expect to be paid and treated really well and all that guff before they've achieved anything. It doesn't work like that. You have to spend five or six years being relatively rubbish and put up with it. For that you don't deserve to be getting Lottery money."

Actually, he points out, he does have a role with 2012 but it is in the chorus, not centre stage. "I am an education ambassador, mainly working with schools." Why nothing more mainstream? "From my point of view, it's all a bit too corporate. It's great if you want to put on a suit and tie, but that's not me. Anyway, I think Seb and his team are doing an unbelievable job. We are going to have the best Games ever. I know Seb would like me to be more involved but, to be honest, he's got some brilliant people with him. They don't need me."

But why isn't he part of the UK Athletics hierarchy after all he has achieved? "They are not my kind of people. I am only about winning and getting better. They are all about politics and empire-building and all that flannel – that's not me."

Thompson has never been one for formality. Life for him always seemed to consist of a clean T-shirt. As usual he turned up for the Laureus awards in tracksuit bottoms and trainers and didn't dress for the swish gala dinner.

So what is he up to these days? "I've still got a small fitness and conditioning business where I travel round the world doing stuff for individuals and corporations, mainly fitness training."

At 53, the hair is greying and so is the trademark moustache but he still looks in remarkably good shape. "Yeah, I'm not bad. I try not to do too much any more. Nowadays I have a couple of rules about exercise. If I start sweating or breathing heavy, I start to do something else."

He has three children from a previous marriage and a couple from a current relationship, aged four and nine. "They just love running around and learning about the rules of sport. It would be really nice if I could get them interested in sport as a lifestyle."

He has been involved in Laureus projects for over a decade and has travelled with the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation to war-ravaged Moldova to work with young footballers. "I love it because I get to spend time with some of the greatest sports people on earth, nice people like Boris Becker, Marvin Hagler and Hugo Porta. I am hoping one day to be a nice bloke too."

Perhaps the nearest Britain has got to a new Daley (apart from Tom Daley, that is) is a female version , the world-champion heptathlete Jessica Ennis. "She's brilliant, doing fab, but she's fairly fragile and I just hope she doesn't get injured before the big one. I just think she has to go there in 2012 in good shape. Obviously it's easy to say that. For her, just being healthy for the six months previous to that is vital. Not being fit is the only thing I can see stopping her not winning the gold medal.

"Athletics is by far the biggest Olympic sport and if we don't win that gold medal, it will be a travesty. Unfortunately, we only have one or two who look to be in striking range." So no new DT? "Nah, I am not sure the world is ready for a new Daley Thompson, they haven't got used to the old one yet."

Thompson was 12 when his Nigerian father, who ran a mini-cab business, was shot dead in South London, something he says taught him "the urgency of life" and "the need to live for the moment". He has never drunk alcohol and swears he has never touched drugs. "It would be nice to see the people who run the sport take it a lot more seriously than when I was around because it was allowed to run rampant and we are still paying the price. But my philosophy was 'I'm going to beat them anyway', and it made winning all the sweeter." He called Dwain Chambers "a cheating bastard who should get a life ban" and still maintains: "I believe anybody who's taking drugs knowingly shouldn't be allowed back."

He was, of course, part of his sport's golden generation, and remains among the last of the athletic Mohicans. "When you had Coe, Ovett and all the guys, it was a lot easier. You could be a bit anonymous and be off your game because we would still win four or five things. It is going to be more difficult for Jess because she is virtually a solitary flag-bearer for British athletics."

His Jack-the-laddish behaviour – such as suggesting Princess Anne might like to have his babies and whistling through the national anthem – was par for his ever-cantankerous course but he declines to regret it. "I don't like being serious. The world is a too serious place." Of his running feud with the media he now reflects: "I just felt I never needed to be what they wanted me to be. I never played up to them, but most people just want to be famous. I only ever wanted to be the best. I never enjoyed fame. Still don't."

Thompson says he will be happy to be just a spectator at the London Games. Will he be there every day? "I'd love to be, but the cost of those tickets – phew!" No doubt he'll be having a word with his pal Seb.

Show us your medals: Golden boy is happy to oblige...

Decathlon: Gold medals

1978 Commonwealth Games (Edmonton)

1980 Olympics (Moscow)

1982 European Championships (Athens)

1982 Commonwealth Games (Brisbane)

1983 World Championships (Helsinki)

1984 Olympics (Los Angeles)

1986 European Championships (Stuttgart)

1986 Commonwealth Games (Edinburgh)

Silver medals

1978 European Championships (Prague)

1986 Commonwealth Games (Edinburgh, 4x100m)

Bronze medals

1986 European Championships (Stuttgart, 4x100m)

Record-breaker In May 1980 he set a world decathlon record of 8,648pts at Götzis, Austria. In 1982 he took the record to 8,730, then raised the bar to 8,774 at the European Championships in Athens. In 1983 he won the inaugural World Championships and became the first decathlete to hold the European, World and Olympic titles simultaneously. His final world record (8,847) came at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 – a record that stood until 1992 and is still the UK record.

Fascinating facts In the 1990s, he played professional football for Mansfield Town and Stevenage Borough and then worked as a fitness coach for both Wimbledon and Luton Town. Awarded OBE in 1986 and CBE in 2000.

Aidan McCartney