Columba Blango has gone head to head with a heavyweight opponent before. On 6 May, come General Election Day, the 53-year-old Southwark borough councillor will be up against Harriet Harman in the fight for the parliamentary seat of Camberwell and Peckham. Having been the constituency MP for 27 years now, Ms Harman, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, is rated as a 1-100 odds-on favourite with Ladbrokes. Still, Councillor Blango, the Liberal Democrat candidate, is a clear second favourite among the seven contenders, at 20-1 against. Back in 1980, when he took on Daley Thompson at the Moscow Olympics, he was not given an earthly chance.
A former mayor of Southwark, Blango chuckles at the memory of his first encounter with the great British decathlete at the summer Games in the Russian capital 30 years ago. "I was very slim," he recalls, "and I remember Daley looked at me and said, 'Are you really a decathlete? The decathlon is not for babies'."
Blango was not an infant in nappies in the Lenin Stadium but a 24-year-old Olympian wearing the vest of his West African homeland, Sierra Leone. He was not the greatest decathlete the world had seen. That was Thompson, who proceeded to win the first of his two Olympic gold medals with a tally of 8,495 points. Blango finished with a modest 5,080 points. He was 16th and last, but at least he managed to complete the two-day, 10-event test of all-round ability. Five others failed to do so.
He pulled a calf muscle in the pole vault, the third-last event. Blango had pole-vault problems too, failing to register a clearance. "I broke my pole in practice and they could not fix it," he recalls. "I had to use one of Daley's poles. It was very kind of him. I've met him a few times since I came to live in England and the last time he asked me for his pole back. He had so many of them, he must have forgotten I'd given it back to him.
"I have many fond memories of competing at Moscow. I learned that sport goes beyond politics, race and religion. I had a lot of support from the Russian crowd. People realised I had a different level of training to Daley and the others. They appreciated my effort. They were very generous.
"In Sierra Leone I was the only decathlete. I grew up in an exclusive diamond-mining community run by a British company and I had the privilege of access to tennis clubs, sports fields, swimming pools and other sporting facilities. I was good in all sports but excelled in athletics. I started as a sprinter and a jumper but the 110m hurdles was my best event. I switched to the decathlon two years before Moscow. I was not very good at some of the field events."
Since moving to Britain 19 years ago, he has worked tirelessly to encourage grass-roots sport – as a PE teacher, a qualified athletics coach and a Southwark councillor. He might not have brought anything quite as grand as an Olympic Games to London, like another veteran of the Moscow Games, Lord Coe, but Blango has pumped some lifeblood into a deprived community by establishing projects such as the Southwark Community Games and the Southwark City Tennis Club.
But which does he consider the more daunting challenge: taking on Daley Thompson or Harriet Harman? He laughs, then replies: "With Daley, it was different. I had my training in Africa, which wasn't as sophisticated. Daley trained in Europe in a highly technical way. With Harriet, it is different. I have the training and the experience to be MP for Camberwell and Peckham. I've lived in the constituency for 19 years. My children have gone to school here. I've been a councillor for 12 years. I've been Mayor of Southwark. And I've made legacies in the community – like the Community Games and City Tennis Club.
"I founded the Southwark Community Games in 2004, with the help of Rio Ferdinand. It's a borough-wide, year-round event for nine to 16-year-olds. My objective was to engage young people in a positive way of life through sports, to develop their self-esteem and prepare them for academic work – also to take them away from the streets and crime and make them productive citizens for the future.
"It started with 1,500 kids being involved and now there are going on 4,000. It's a wonderful thing. I'm very proud of it."
Sir Christopher Chataway An Olympic 5,000m finalist in 1952 and 1956 (and a world record-breaker at the distance), he had two spells as a Conservative MP – as representative for Lewisham North from 1959 to 1966 and for Chichester from 1969 to 1974. He served in Edward Heath's government as Minister for Industrial Development.
Sir Menzies Campbell As a sprinter, Menzies Campbell ran for Britain in the 200m and the 4x100m relay at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. As a Liberal candidate, he won the parliamentary race for the North-East Fife constituency in 1987 and still holds it. He was leader of the Liberal Democrats from 2006-07.
Lord Coe As an Olympic 1500m runner Sebastian Coe was peerless, striking gold in Moscow in 1980 and in Los Angeles four years later. He also won two silver medals at 800m. In 1992 he became the Conservative MP for Falmouth and Camborne. He lost the Cornish seat in 1997 but subsequently worked as William Hague's chief of staff.
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