British athletics has lost one of its all-time greats and one of its finest characters with the death last week, aged 73, of Don Thompson. Back in 1960, when he scuttled into the Stadio Olimpico to win the 50km race- walk gold medal at the Rome Olympics, the Italian public were captivated by the curious little Englishman, an insurance clerk from Cranfield in Middlesex, with his sunglasses and his French legionnaire's hat. Il Topolino, they called him - The Little Mouse.
They were even more intrigued when Thompson revealed the homespun ingenuity behind his success. Haunted by the memory of the 1956 Games in Melbourne, when he wilted in the scorching temperatures and failed to finish, he prepared for the heat and humidity of Rome by transforming his bathroom into a makeshift acclimatisation chamber.
As he recalled in an interview with The Independent on Sunday in 2004: "There was an electric heater attached to the wall and I thought, 'Well, that won't provide enough heat'. I had to boost the humidity too, so I got a Valor stove and put that in the bath because there was no other place to put it. It was a very small bathroom. I boiled the kettle downstairs and put that on top of the stove. Then I switched on the wall heater, lit the stove, shut the window, shut the door and let it all heat up for half an hour.
"Then I went in and did a few exercises for half an hour. I was feeling dizzy. The temperature was about 120F. I thought, 'This is doing me good. It can't possibly be as hot as this in Rome'. It wasn't until several years later that I realised I wasn't feeling dizzy because of the heat. It was carbon monoxide from the stove, which was fuelled by paraffin. There was no ventilation."
Thompson competed for Folkestone Running Club into his seventies. His funeral will take place at Aldershot Crematorium on Wednesday 18 October.Reuse content