The champion that time forgot: Why do we find it so hard to love Daley Thompson?
He overcame the brutal murder of his father to become arguably our greatest ever athlete. Today, he is an ambassador for the London 2012 Olympic Games and teaching children how to play football in war-torn Moldova. So why is Daley Thompson still so hard to love?
Sunday 27 July 2008
"Objectionable, charmless and rude," a Times reporter once wrote of Daley Thompson, "this is not a man destined to become a sports diplomat." It's hard to know quite which incident from the athlete's history might have inspired that prediction. Perhaps it was his decision, after he won gold at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, to perform a lap of honour in a shirt bearing the slogan: "Is the world's 2nd greatest athlete gay?" (A gesture directed at Carl Lewis, who won four gold medals at those games.) It could have been his refusal to carry the English flag at the Commonwealth Games in 1982, his exclamation on winning BBC Sports Personality of the Year ("Oh, shit"), or his publicly declared ambition to "give Princess Anne a baby". Most likely, though, it was his famously robust relationship with fans. "There were many occasions," Colin Hart wrote, in The Sun, in 1992, "when I didn't see eye to eye with Daley and there was a two-year period when I refused to speak to him. I couldn't take his overpowering arrogance or his rudeness, particularly to the public. There were many times when, in his prime, he would use four-letter words to children and old ladies if they asked for his autograph."
Unpredictability was always one of Thompson's main attributes, however, and these days the decathlete belongs to an elite company of sporting envoys such as Sir Bobby Charlton, Gary Player and John McEnroe, who travel the world for Laureus, the sporting academy whose lavish award ceremonies and global philanthropy are sponsored by companies including Mercedes and Vodafone. Thompson, who celebrates his 50th birthday on Wednesday, was also recently appointed as an ambassador for the 2012 London Olympics.
I've arranged to join him at Heathrow, on a Laureus-funded mission to Moldova, the landlocked state between Romania and Ukraine. From Chisinau, the capital, he will travel north to work with young footballers in an area close to the breakaway state of Transnistria: an autonomous province notorious for smuggling drugs, oil and people. Laureus hopes that the initiative may help break down prejudice in the border region, where tension has remained high following a bloody civil war in the 1990s.
Thompson, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and trainers, arrives at the departure gate on time but avoids entering the main waiting area, where I'm sitting with the rest of his fellow passengers, until the last minute. He shakes hands and exchanges perfunctory civilities. A male member of the check-in staff approaches us. "My friend wants your autograph," he says. "She didn't have the courage to ask you."
Thompson signs with no expletives. I'd assumed that Laureus had put us on the same plane so that we could talk on the journey, but it transpires that they've booked the athlete's seat in club class and mine in economy.
"Have they really?" says Thompson, in a tone that makes it clear he's not about to sacrifice legroom in order to speak for publication. "See you in Moldova."
The late trainer and journalist Cliff Temple, who committed suicide in 1994 following unfounded allegations of paedophilia, knew Daley Thompson well. Temple likened him to the legendary Jesse Owens, and there's no doubt that Thompson is the greatest all-round athlete this country has ever produced. Between 1978 and 1986 he won two Olympic gold medals, three Commonwealth golds and two European Championship golds. In 1983, when he took gold at the World Championships in Helsinki, he held all the major decathlon titles.
For all that, Daley Thompson has tended to inspire grudging respect, rather than affection. Great athletes are rarely taken to the nation's heart in the way footballers, tennis stars or even racehorses can be: the myopic competitiveness of Olympic champions doesn't make for endearing characters. And Thompson was, according to his coach Frank Dick, "the most competitive sporting animal I've ever come across".
Endearing or not, many feel Daley Thompson has received scant recognition for his achievements in the event that ancient Greeks would have seen as the ultimate test of an athlete. Thompson has a CBE, but no knighthood. The new National Lottery scratchcard features pictures of six British Olympic champions. The list – chosen, says Camelot, by a poll – omits Thompson: a decision Sebastian Coe describes as "astonishing". It was, in the words of Independent on Sunday sports diarist Alan Hubbard, "a snub of Olympian proportions".
At Chisinau airport, we're met by a British Embassy car and drive past rows of dilapidated flats that blight the nation commonly described as the poorest in Europe. We check in at the five-star Leogrand Hotel, then make our way to the British Embassy. This country is probably best known to British readers as the setting for Tony Hawks' 2000 book Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, and as the inspiration for a 2003 parody of the Lonely Planet guides: Molvania, A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry. ("It is considered polite," the guide advises, "to tip your pilot in the event of an incident-free landing. Departure tax is $3,000 – one of the highest in Europe – but most visitors agree it is well worth the price.")
Graceless though such stereotyping might be, a posting to Moldova doesn't necessarily indicate that you're on the fast track to Washington. Perhaps because of that, the acting ambassador and his staff are welcoming and generous, with none of the aloofness acquired by some others in the service. Daley, who's still in his T-shirt and shorts, doesn't look underdressed.
We have drinks in the Embassy garden, by the outdoor pool – the sight of which unavoidably recalls one of the most famous chapters in the history of Moldovan sport. The country entered a male team for the Underwater Hockey World Championships in Australia in 2000; they were beaten 30-0 by Colombia and 23-0 by Argentina, before the whole squad applied for asylum. ("They didn't even know how to put their fins on," complained Margaret Francis, of the sport's international federation.) Two years later, in Calgary, Canada, Francis arranged visas for a 12-strong Moldovan women's underwater hockey side. This time the players didn't even make the opening ceremony, as they were already filing for refugee status.
Thompson, who has never drunk alcohol, shakes hands with members of the Moldovan Football Federation. In social situations, he often looks like a man who has been picked as the fall guy for a sketch in Trigger Happy TV or its forerunner Candid Camera, but has been tipped off in advance, and is taking pleasure in observing, with an occasional knowing glance, the people conspiring against him. Afterwards, over dinner, he falls in with Scotty, a Londoner who has run football ' camps in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the three of us walk back to the hotel, Daley and Scotty settle into locker-room banter.
"I met Uma Thurman last week," the athlete says.
"Is she worth a shag?" Scotty asks.
Any woman, Thompson says, "only has to sit on a bed I've slept in to get pregnant".
The athlete's irreverent attitude to his intimate life changes once Scotty's left, and we sit down to talk, at around 10.30 at night, in the Leogrand's empty restaurant. He orders a hot chocolate. "Do you miss it?" I ask.
Thompson, who now works as a motivational trainer for individuals and corporations, but still speaks about his athletic career in the present tense, doesn't need reminding what "it" might be. "Every day. Not a day goes by when I don't wish I was still doing it. Being selfish, training, no responsibilities. To be honest" – this last phrase is one that Thompson uses frequently – "all I ever wanted to be was the best. I don't enjoy fame."
"Didn't you once talk enviously about 'those 100-metre guys; they're so glamorous...'?"
"That was before I knew what fame was like. It's intrusive. It's not for me. But I wouldn't change my life at all. I wouldn't change a day."
"When you signed that autograph earlier, I couldn't help remembering those stories in which fans claimed you told them to F-off."
"Those stories were not justified. They were terrible."
"Did you do that?"
"I don't know. I don't remember doing it."
Athletics, I suggest to Thompson, is uninteresting to many because of the slender margins between victory and defeat. The decathlon is different because – rather like cricket where, even at the highest level, bowlers who can't bat are obliged to – you have the spectacle of supremely gifted performers attempting things they're not especially good at, which is always fascinating. Thompson says he was fortunate his best events came first. "I'm basically a sprinter and jumper. Day one opens with the 100 metres. Then long jump, putting the shot, high jump and the 400 metres." He struggled more on day two (110-metres hurdles/discus/javelin/pole vault/1,500 metres.)
"I know you found the pole vault very hard; you don't exactly have the physique..."
"Sometimes you have to resist working on your strengths in favour of your weaknesses. The decathlon requires a wide range of skills."
"That's why people enjoy it. Come to think of it, the decathlon might be even more popular if we widened the range even further. Start day one with juggling, say, followed by bowls and origami..."
"Then fly-fishing," Thompson adds. "And dominoes."
"Was it Sebastian Coe who said: 'Daley is a Stalinist. It's not enough for him to win; he has to...'"
"...'mentally destroy his opponent?' Yes."
"Was he right?"
"Sure. That's the fun of it."
"There's a story about Jürgen Hingsen [Thompson's main rival in the 1980s] throwing up by the track while you were clinching gold."
"Of course he was. It's tough out there. It's not as easy as I make it look, you know."
Thompson might have had a third Olympic gold, had injury not hampered him in 1988. There's a widely held assumption based on his athletic achievements, I suggest, that he must have been taking performance-enhancing drugs; people might no more believe a 1980s track and field champion who says he didn't take drugs than a 1960s rock drummer who claims he never smoked cannabis.
"I never used drugs."
"What about the people you beat?"
"I reckon any number were using drugs. That makes winning honestly all the sweeter."
"You said of Dwain Chambers that – if he knew what he was taking – he was 'a cheating bastard who should get a life ban'."
"Yes. I believe anybody who's taking drugs knowingly shouldn't be allowed back." [An opinion the judge who upheld Chambers' life ban on 18 July appears to share.]
"At his peak," says one associate who knew Thompson well, "he was not popular. He could be very sarcastic; very full of himself. He was mean as shit with money. But I've never heard any suggestion he took drugs. He's remained close to Sebastian Coe, who is vehemently opposed to drug use. I don't believe they could have stayed so close if he'd been taking anything. The only thing Daley Thompson ever got high on was himself."
Francis Morgan Thompson grew up in London's Notting Hill. His mother, Lydia, came from Dundee; his father, a Nigerian who ran a minicab firm, left home when Daley [a contraction of Ayodele, an African name meaning "joy comes home"] was six. A year later, the boy, described by his mother as "a terror from the start", was sent on a council grant to Farley Close, a Sussex boarding school he calls "a place for troubled children". Daley's brother and sister attended state schools.
"Your father died when you were..."
"...Eleven or 12."
"I don't think you've ever said how he died. Was it sudden?"
"I guess you could say it was sudden. As soon as the bullet hit him. He was shot. In Streatham. Him and a mate were dropping off some woman. Her husband shot my dad."
"Where were you?"
"At boarding school. My mum phoned. Then I went back home."
"In what state of mind?"
Thompson, who has a lifetime's experience of accentuating the positive, hesitates.
"Yes. I wasn't manic or anything. It wasn't distress distress."
As a very young boy, he'd wanted to be a footballer, but was instinctively drawn to arenas celebrating individual, rather than collective, achievement. He trained as a sprinter with clubs including Essex Beagles, where he met his first serious coach, Bob Mortimer. His first decathlon was in Cwmbran, Wales, in 1975.
"Bob suggested the decathlon. I'd never done six of the events before. But in Wales, at the end of the first day, I was thinking, I could be the best at this. It was all Bob's idea. My great strength is that I'm lucky. Things fall into place for me."
He was still in his teens when his mother announced he could either get a job, or move out. Thompson went to lodge with Doreen Rayment, a woman he calls auntie.
"She was my mum's best friend."
"How did that go down with Lydia?"
Thompson gives a defiant look. "Never asked her."
"What if Doreen hadn't been there?"
"That's an excellent question, but not one I'm going to answer."
"Before Moscow, in 1980, you said you were certain to win gold."
"It's like horse racing. Favourites nearly always win."
"And not long after you won that first Olympic medal, Cliff Temple wrote: 'He was influenced by two types of people. On one side the athletes and media he'd snubbed, who lost no opportunity to get back at him. Far more dangerous was an inner circle of people in whose eyes Thompson could do no wrong. Every one of Daley's jokes was hilarious; every criticism unfounded.' Who's he talking about?"
"I think it's difficult to be a rounded person if you're young."
"Who did he mean?"
"Maybe Frank Dick, my coach."
Thompson concedes that, "I probably was occasionally a bit of a knob. Who isn't, when they're 21?"
"Why did you refuse to carry the flag in Brisbane in 1982..."
"That ceremony would have taken six hours, in the heat. Then perform, three days later? I'm not a tourist."
"Whose idea was the gay slogan T-shirt?"
"I put my hand up to that one."
"You're proud of that?"
"Yes. You wouldn't believe the number of people who approach me and say, 'What was on your shirt again?' You have to differentiate yourself. Show you have personality." '
"So that people have some feelings about you. Most Olympic athletes, people don't have feelings about."
This last remark illustrates the two conflicting impulses that have shaped Thompson's somewhat complex relationship with the world: a desperate need to be noticed, and an even more powerful desire to be left alone.
Where this second requirement is concerned, his luck has sometimes deserted him. In 1987, Thompson married Patricia Quinlan, known as Tish. Rachel, the first of their three children, was 12 weeks premature, weighing under 2lb. Even this Thompson recalls as "a brilliant experience".
"But not one you'd necessarily want to go through."
"Remember what I told you? It always turns out right for me."
"You said that you wouldn't change one day of your life. You've been on the front pages of the red tops..." "Yes."
"That can't be so great a day, waking up to discover that details of your personal life have been pushed through a million letterboxes."
"But that doesn't constitute my day."
In most of these stories, with headlines such as "Love Cheat", Thompson is damaged less by the central accusation than incidental references to his supposed short-comings, notably ardent thrift. In 1996, The Mirror quoted secretary Mandy Butler (21) as saying: "He ALWAYS took the hotel soap home."
"There's one article about an alleged fling that says: 'They holidayed in Bali – in a room with a balcony.' The implication is that it would have been OK for you to break the seventh commandment, so long as you didn't have a sea view."
"If only I'd hired a villa."
In June 2001, three months after he split up with Patricia, The Mirror carried the snappy headline: "Daley Thompson's Mistress Reveals How He Told Her to Abort Their First Baby and Has Left Her Now She is Pregnant Again."
The complainant was Lisa Clayton of Bridgend – his lover, the report alleged, since 1999. "I think he found me convenient," said Clayton. "At times I felt I was arguing with a teenager. I can't get inside his head."
Who, I ask Thompson, is he living with now?
"The same Lisa that talked to The Mirror?" "Yes."
The couple have two children. "When you got back together again – that must have been an interesting conversation." "It was. That was a very decent thing I did. Very unlike me."
Once the recording machine is switched off, Thompson, who's sharp, and can be very funny, talks in an almost relaxed way on a range of themes, including his admiration for Muhammad Ali.
"Were you ever an activist?"
"There were only ever two black kids at my school. I never considered myself to be 'a black kid'. I was who I was. Which isn't to say things haven't happened to me that wouldn't have happened if I wasn't black."
"Lack of advancement in the athletics world?"
"You have two Olympic gold medals."
"The stopwatch doesn't lie. The tape measure doesn't lie. But there are other things; things you can't stop."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm not going there."
I don't think this is about the Lottery scratchcard. Later, Thompson mentions a report about Linford Christie.
"I heard he went on some show saying that, if he wasn't black, he'd have been knighted." I suspect that Thompson [who, unlike Christie, has never been banned for ingesting nandrolone] wouldn't mind joining the many Olympic achievers who have heavyweight honours, but this isn't a theory he's inclined to debate.
"One of your ex-partners said: 'Daley is extremely difficult to know. He doesn't like interviews, because they require a degree of intimacy and trust.'"
"It's good to be difficult to know." Thompson laughs. "Too many people are too easy to know."
"Who knows you?"
"Nobody," replies the athlete, who isn't laughing any more. "There's not really anybody I confide in. I don't find that cathartic. Nobody knows me, except myself."
The following morning, we head north to Soroca, Moldova's so-called "gypsy capital", close to the disputed territory of Transnistria. It's a bracing two-hour drive, on account of our own driver's relaxed attitude to speed, and the audaciously inventive manoeuvres of other motorists. Earlier this month, Moldova finished top of the European drink-driving league; a remarkable 19.4 per cent of Moldovans stopped by police were over the limit, putting them 17 per cent ahead of the fourth-placed nation and comfortably clear of closest contenders Switzerland (6.6 per cent) and the UK (6 per cent).
In Soroca, we park outside a recreation field where a uniformed brass band, average age 10, greets us. A hundred or so children are gathered, wearing Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea shirts. Thompson kicks a ball around for an hour or so, then signs autographs.
There are trainers from Transnistria, but no children. An elderly man on the drinks stall, who has clearly been sampling his own products since daybreak, tells us, in Romanian, that "Friendship is good", a phrase he repeats to the point that we no longer require our interpreter. In the heat of the midday sun, one of the young bandsmen passes out. The Soroca initiative is positive, touching, and slightly surreal.
"Why do you do this?" I ask Thompson.
"First, I feel I should give something back. Second, one of the big thrills I get, about eight times a year, is to meet the other Laureus Academy members. That's the reason I joined. When they said there would be Michael Jordan and Boris Becker and [Argentinian rugby union star] Hugo Porta, I thought: 'I'll be in heaven.'"
Lunch is served at a local restaurant. The Moldovan trainers, and some players, are here. Thompson is placed at the table of honour. A master at concealing any emotion except boredom, he sends back the two first courses untouched.
"You're promoting the Olympics: do you have no unease about China as host? After what's happened in Sudan, not to mention Tibet, surely it's not too late to withdraw?"
"I won't make that argument: 10,000 kids have worked their arses off, they're going to China. How can sport fight a cause while everybody's still trading with the Chinese?"
We have to leave before the third of what look like being considerably more courses arrives, to catch the London flight.
Before we land at Heathrow, the plane is in a holding pattern for a gruelling 50 minutes. If you include the road trip, we've been travelling for almost 12 hours. Thompson, being nearer the exit, gets off the aircraft first. As I come out of Customs, some irrational part of me wonders if he might have waited to say goodbye. But when he got off the plane, my companion was, according to one witness, "in no mood to hang around" and demonstrated that, however else he may have altered, his speed out of the blocks has yet to desert him.
Our last conversation was at the departure gate in Chisinau airport, where Thompson remained as he had been for much of the trip: self-contained and monosyllabic. It was one of several moments when it felt like trying to make small talk with a boxer at a weigh-in.
"You know, I'm not sure I really want to be here doing this," I told him. "When I was 10, I wanted to be a vet."
"Believe me," Thompson replied, "you aren't the only one here who wishes you'd been somewhere else – out in a field, helping a horse." n
The Laureus Sport for Good Foundation promotes the use of sport as a means to improve the lives of young people. It supports over 60 humanitarian projects around the world, helping young people overcome poverty, homelessness, war, violence, drugs abuse, discrimination and Aids. To date, it has raised €15m for projects helping over 750,000 children
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