Thursday, 17 May 2012

1988 Olympics: Daley Thompson

One of the problems with getting old is that there comes a point in your life when you realise that your time has gone. Whereas once you were young, fit and vibrant, you are now middle-aged, tired and aching. Hangovers that used to subside after a couple of hours now stretch into the following evening, and you start to feel wrong about fancying Pixie Lott (age 21), and begin to feel more comfortable setting your sights on Kate Humble (age 43).

The worst thing about this state of affairs is that there seems to be no warning about this transformation, which is as scary as it sounds. For a sportsman, once invincible in his arena, this realisation must be the most startling of wake-up calls, a reminder that time waits for no man. Even when that man was one Francis Morgan Ayodélé Thompson.

For the majority of wee sports lovers growing up in the 1980s, Daley Thompson was heroic. Unbeaten in the decathlon between 1978-1986, he was as cool off the track (and field) as he was brilliant on it. Twice Olympic champion, winner of the gold medal at the inaugural World Championships in 1983, twice European champion, three times Commonwealth gold medal winner, the world record holder, BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1982, MBE, OBE, face of Lucozade, and quite crucially to a lot of children in the 80s, he put his name to many wrist-busting classic computer games, most notably the inventively named Daley Thompson's Decathlon. When Gareth Keenan sings your praises then you know you've made it.

Of course Daley did some daft things: whistling the national anthem at Los Angeles in 1984 wasn't his wisest move, swearing whilst wearing a tracksuit during his acceptance speech for BBC Sports Personality didn't go down too well, along with refusing to carry the England team flag at the opening ceremony of the 1982 Commonwealth Games, and wearing a t-shirt with the slogan "Is the world's 2nd greatest athlete gay?" at Los Angeles in 1984 (a pop at Carl Lewis). But none of this baggage mattered to any Daley fans, as he kept on winning, so his foibles were forgiven.

Inevitably after years of such intense training and competition, Thompson's body started to creak under the pressure. Leading up to the 1987 World Championships he missed three months of the season due to a groin strain, and it was hardly a surprise when Thompson suffered his first defeat since 1978, finishing ninth, a full 556 points behind the gold medallist Torsten Voss.

To many believers Thompson had lost simply due to his injury, James Lawton stating in the Daily Express that "...the extent of his abductor muscle problem was clear...", although Lawton, and indeed Thompson himself, didn't blame the injury entirely. Daley was adamant that this defeat was a blip: "This was a mere hiccup. The others should savour my defeat because I promise it will not happen again". Spoken like a true champion, but unfortunately injuries and time meant that his words would have a hollow feel come the Seoul Olympics a year later, although even in defeat Thompson would show his true quality.

Again Thompson was approaching a major championship with an injury cloud hanging over his head, this time a thigh problem the major cause for concern. Not that it seemed to matter in the 100 metres, as Daley clocked the fastest time of 10.62, to lead the event by 48 points. Admittedly his time was 0.18 slower than his Los Angeles performance, but even so, Daley had made just the start he would have wanted. His old rival Jürgen Hingsen was not as fortunate, false starting 3 times and going home after just one event.

The first signs of danger for Daley fans arrived in the long jump. In Los Angeles Thompson had jumped 8.01 metres, a mark that would actually have gained him fifth place in the men's long jump final, but in Seoul he could only manage 7.38 metres. In all, seven men jumped further than Thompson, meaning he had now slipped to second behind Christian Plaziat, albeit only 12 points behind the Frenchman. However, Thompson regained the lead after the shot putt, throwing a steady 15.02 metres (70 cm down on his Los Angeles effort), as Plaziat's poor 13.58 metres saw him drop to fourth, and Thompson now led by a miserly 8 points, with the Finn Petri Keskitalo breathing down his neck. East German Torsten Voss was a threatening 43 points adrift of Thompson.

The next event would prove crucial come the final reckoning. East German Christian Schenk set a new Olympic best for the high jump, clearing 2.27 metres, gaining a whopping 1061 points in the process. Thompson equalled his Los Angeles feats by clearing 2.03 metres, for once completely overshadowed by a fellow Brit, as Alex Kruger jumped 2.15 metres, and with Plaziat only 3 cm behind Kruger, Thompson had dropped to third place overall. Schenk's high jump exploits spelt trouble for the rest of the field, meaning the East German had boosted his points tally to 3604, with Plaziat on 3482, and Thompson on 3474. It looked like being a decisive moment in the 1988 Olympic decathlon, and it would eventually prove so.

If alarm bells were ringing after the long jump, then the painful truth was staring everyone in the face after the final event of day one. In the 400 metres Thompson was only the 16th quickest, running a relatively slow 49.06. Compare this to Los Angeles, where Thompson ran the quickest time in the field of 46.97, and you get an indication that the crown was slipping. Obviously assessing the time/distances between events in 1984 and 1988 isn't the most accurate analysis, as various factors have to be taken into consideration (such as age of an athlete and track/wind conditions), but it is telling to note that Thompson was way down on his 1984 vintage.

Schenk led after day one on 4470 points, Plaziat second on 4375, with Thompson in third on 4332. World Champion Voss sat in fourth on 4299, and eventual bronze medallist, Dave Steen of Canada, was a long way back in tenth on 4153. If Thompson was to secure his third Olympic gold medal then he was going to have to do it the hard way. And on top of this he was going to have to endure a 13 hour second-day in Seoul's Olympic Stadium.

Plaziat would again regain the lead after clocking 14.18 in the 110 metre hurdles. Thompson in comparison could only manage 14.72 and his grip on third was looking perilous as Voss was only a single point further back. Schenk hit back immediately in the discus, throwing 49.28 metres for a vital 855 points, Thompson again losing ground on the eventual champion, achieving 44.80 metres and 763 points. Thompson trailed by 180 points and it was now or never for the great champion.

One of the iconic moments of Los Angeles four years earlier was of Thompson somersaulting gleefully after a successful clearance in the pole vault. Unfortunately the same event in Seoul would provide a similar moment, but for all the wrong reasons. As he took his first attempt to clear 4.60 metres, little did we know that this would be the final nail in Daley's coffin.

To the disbelief of the viewing public, Thompson's pole snapped, shattering as soon as it bent, and taking Thompson's dreams with it. To see such a great competitor humbled like this was sobering. To me I don't think I had felt like that since Aslan had been betrayed in Narnia.

I don't want to look...

It is often in moments of adversity that heroes excel, and from this moment onwards Thompson highlighted just what a man he was. Having injured his shoulder, neck, hands, and aggravating his existing thigh strain in the pole vault incident, many would have excused him had he called it quits. But whilst there was a hope of gaining a medal Thompson could never comprehend walking away, even if Malcolm Reed, the team doctor, advised him to pull out immediately. Ignoring this, Thompson bravely borrowed a pole from his British team-mate Greg Richards, cleared 4.70 metres and although he slipped back to fourth, this man was not for quitting.

Thompson managed a superb 64.04 metres in the javelin, a personal best with the new type of javelin (used since 1986), and Plaziat's disastrous 52.18 metres pushed Daley back up to the bronze medal position. If he could hold on to a medal in Seoul then it could arguably be viewed as one of Thompson's finest achievements, and there were obviously a lot of those to choose from. However, his body was visibly failing, and at the start of the 1500 metres his left leg was heavily strapped from the top of his thigh to his knee. Whether Daley could gain a bronze would all boil down to 1500 metres of pain.

Alas it was agonisingly a bridge too far for Thompson, as he missed out on a brave bronze by just 22 points or, in 1500 metres terms, by 3.5 seconds. Two days of competition, the second of which was over half a day long, left Thompson a physical wreck. But although he only just failed to gain a medal, he had still managed to go up in a lot of people's estimations.

Under the headline 'END OF AN ERA', the Daily Mirror's Nigel Clarke waxed lyrical about Thompson: "Daley Thompson's longest day became the one that proved his magnificence as a man", adding that Thompson had "fought to cling on to his Olympic crown until he came close to being broken". Frank Dick, Thompson's coach and the British director of coaching was understandably gushing in his praise of Daley: "He's got more courage than any man I've ever known. He hurt his left thigh seven days ago and but for that injury he was in the shape to win. He showed the character that sets the British apart. He competed in pain for two days". The words of these two men indicates just how commendable a performance Thompson put in over the two days in Seoul. In defeat you could still see just how incredible an athlete and competitor Daley was.

Thompson was certain that he would be back stating that "None of these guys are better than me. I'm going to continue for at least another two or three years". But sadly this was pretty much the end for Daley. Forced to pull out of the 1990 Commonwealth Games team, Thompson finally called it a day in 1992, an unfitting end to such a great career.

But what a career it was. And amongst all the triumphs, all the highs and records, the computer games and the Lucozade, it should be remembered that one of his greatest performances came at Seoul in 1988. A man riddled with injuries, dragging his body through two days of hell, driven on by pride as he strove to claim a deserved medal. And although he couldn't quite reach his goal, the man showed why we all loved him. And as I can't find a way to conclude this blog I'll leave the final words to Nigel Clarke: "But intact still, and glowing brightly, is his fierce pride, his love of a challenge and his commitment to competing that makes him the most remarkable athlete of his era".


  1. Excellent article. Why can Britain produce world class hepthalethe's but, Macey excepted, we haven't been able to produce another world class decathlethe?