Skip to main content
Original Issue

In Sum, It Was Just What He Wanted

Daley Thompson's decathlon score totaled up to 8,707 points, which was more than enough to surpass the world record

Daley Thompson and Jane Frederick sat on the high-jump pit in tiny Mösle Stadium in Götzis, Austria and reflected. It was Saturday afternoon, near the end of the first day of the Götzis International Decathlon and Heptathlon. A few raindrops fell. Frederick had completed the first four events of the heptathlon and was 40 points ahead of the pace that took her to an American record 6,308 here a year ago, though now she led the second-place competitor, Anke Vater of East Germany, by only 30 points.

Thompson, 23, the 1980 Olympic champion from Great Britain, had been superb, winning the 100 meters and long jump and amassing 3,677 points after four events, putting him well ahead of the pace of Guido Kratschmer when the West German set the decathlon world record of 8,649 in 1980. (Kratschmer had lifted the record from Thompson, who less than a month earlier had taken it from Bruce Jenner.)

Yet in G√∂tzis, Thompson was nobly pursued. Not by Kratschmer, who had passed up the meet, but by the record holder's 24-year-old countryman, J√ºrgen Hingsen. The 6'6¾", 225-pound Hingsen had achieved personal records in three events, won the shotput and tied for first in the high jump, and lay 62 points back, dangerously close if his second day was as heroic as his first.

One event remained for the men that evening, the 400 meters. There would be six sections to accommodate the 26 competitors, with Thompson and Hingsen in the sixth. No one in the first section of the race broke 50 seconds. A stiff, cold wind had come up and it blew in the runners' faces for the initial 100 meters, tiring them early. Thompson watched that race closely from his seat on the high-jump pit. He watches everything closely. He saw his British teammate, Colin Boreham, run 48.17 in the fourth section. "I was unsure how to run," Thompson said. "Colin had run a personal best, despite that wind...shown it could be done. I couldn't let him down. Couldn't let myself down."

Thompson slipped off the foam pit and said to Frederick, "Well, I'm going for it." He hadn't broken 48 seconds in decathlon competition in four years, having compromised his running in order to improve once weak events such as the shot, pole vault and discus. "Now," said Frederick, "it's crack 47 or die for that guy."

Thompson was in Lane 3, Hingsen in 2, where he could keep an eye on him. At the gun, Thompson bolted into the gale as if the race was a mere 100. "I think I overcompensated for the wind," he would say later. He passed the 200 in 21.5, sprinting furiously, far clear of Hingsen and the field. Thompson has a scooting sort of stride, with little knee lift, a style that can switch from overdrive to stagger very quickly. Yet entering the stretch he still held a lead of 12 yards. "I tried to go even faster," he said. "But I couldn't." The power of his heavily muscled arms and shoulders and back seemed to carry Thompson's faltering legs as he leaned and strained for the tape. He hit it in 46.86, the best time of his life. "Better, under the conditions," said Ron Pickering, the British coach, "than Bill Toomey's 45.69 in the altitude of Mexico City in 1968."

In fact, it was Toomey, the Olympic champion that year, who seemed to be Thompson's inspiration. Thompson had said, "He told me once, 'You get 'em all in the 100, and to make sure they know you mean business, you get 'em again in the 400.' " Thompson sat, a little faint, on the high-jump pit where he'd gathered his resolve. "I meant business, didn't I?" he said.

Hingsen had run 47.86, a personal record by a full second, yet had lost by a full second. He sank onto the thickly-padded lawn chair on which he rested between events while a comely friend iced his legs. "I said that Daley was unbeatable just now," Hingsen said, and now he believed it. With 955 points for the 400, Thompson's first-day total was 4,632, the highest ever, and 172 ahead of Kratschmer's world-record pace. Yet the record seemed but an abstraction to Thompson, compared with his vibrant competition with Hingsen, who had 4,520. "He's got a best of 14.2 in the 110-meter hurdles [the event that would open the second day]," said Thompson. "If I get him in that one, it will put him back in his lawn chair. I think this is going to be a great, great decathlon. Hingsen could break the world record and get second."

A decathlon of such magnitude is rare to begin with and has always seemed to demand the background of an Olympics. Yet this struggle was taking place in a quiet village of 9,000 in the westernmost tip of Austria. The still-snowy Vorarlberg mountains formed a calming backdrop, and the athletes' familiar fragrances of wintergreen and baby powder were overmatched by that of Brown Swiss cows in an adjoining pasture.

"Why do I come here?" said Thompson. "Well, I set the short-lived world record [8,622] here two years ago, and the people are wonderful. Also, it's the only decathlon invitation I ever get."

Frederick won the Götzis pentathlon in 1978 and '79, the latter in an American record of 4,708, and then, after the women went to seven events (adding the 200 and javelin to the 100 hurdles, shotput, high jump, long jump and 800), won again last year. "It's important to me that the only competition here is for multieventers," she said. "This is for us." She bent to the turf, discovering a dewy four-leaf clover. "I've been lucky here. And now that makes me feel more pressure, a responsibility to perform as well as Götzis has seen me before."

Frederick is 30. The preeminent U.S. pentathlete and heptathlete for 10 years, she seems to grow ever stronger and more fragile. "I'm old," she said before the event in which she would be competing against 23 other heptathletes. "I hurt a hamstring in April, had a cold all winter. This is the first meet of the year for me and I'm so nervous I don't think I want to talk anymore."

She began grimly, with 13.81 in the hurdles, running under control. In the shot she attained 49'6½", but first had to shoo photographers out of her line of sight. After Frederick cleared 5'11¾" in the high jump, her best in four years, she relaxed a little. "Nerves," she said. "But when I get over feeling them, I'll know it's time to quit."

Thompson, by contrast, seems unable to be on the receiving end of anxiety. He's effervescent in competition, incessantly joking and coaching his opponents. "He uses other people to dissipate the tension," said a photographer friend, Steve Powell, who taught Thompson scuba diving. "He learns instantly."

On the first day, however, Thompson's role was clearly that of the masterful instructor. He's the fastest of the top decathletes, a gift amply rewarded by the scoring tables. "Nine events are based on speed or explosiveness," Thompson says, "only one on endurance [the concluding 1,500]. Jenner says the 1,500 is all he could still beat me in. He ran 70 miles a week, and it showed in his sprints; he ran the 100 like a miler."

In Götzis, Thompson blew away from the 100 field with a good, low start and finished in 10.49 for 935 points. Hingsen did a PR of 10.95, worth 817. Thompson credited his own swiftness so early in the season to his training for three months in San Diego last winter. "It's worth 200 points to him," grumbled Hingsen.

In the long jump, Thompson, who is one of England's best at the event, soared 25'11½" on his first attempt. He'd planned but one jump, to cut the chance of injury. "But I've got a big one in me, 26'9" or so," he told Pickering. "Two more jumps won't kill me."

Just then Hingsen shook the earth with his takeoff and did 25'11¾", his second PR. Despite his eagerness, Thompson only improved to 26'1" and the additional jumps did hurt him. "A twinge in the back," he said.

They went to the shot. Hingsen was showing more emotion with each event. After releasing the steel ball with a shout, he stood trembling in the ring, watching it land at 52'4". Thompson replied with a silent, well-balanced throw of 50'2¾", a best for him in the decathlon. He passed his last throw, content. "That was a test of the sore back," said Pickering.

"No," said Thompson, "I'm afraid the high jump will be." He has jumped 7¼", remarkable for a man 5'11" and 190 pounds, but he had an early miss at 6'5¼", hitting the bar on the way up. Hingsen cleared 6'7½", 6'8¾" and 6'10" on his first tries. Thompson slipped over each time. At 6'11", both missed twice. Thompson turned away from Hingsen's last try. The crowd told him Hingsen had made it.

Thompson immediately raced at the bar. "I was ready," he said later. He had the height, but not in the right place. As Thompson and the bar descended together, Hingsen grinned in ferocious ecstasy. Yet the West German could go no higher and so only diminished Thompson's lead by 25 points. All he had done was help goad Thompson into the 400 that would turn this from a promising start into a historic event.

It rained in the night. But at 9:45 a.m. Sunday, the 110 hurdles gleamed in bright sun. "We were going into the wind," said Thompson. "I figured the main thing was to run hard." Again he and Hingsen were in neighboring lanes. Thompson got a superb start and led at the first hurdle. He has a lunging, wild style, notable for waving arms. The smoother Hingsen gained at each hurdle—especially the five that Thompson hit—but Thompson kept lurching ahead between the barriers. He won in 14.31 to Hingsen's 14.52. "Went well," Thompson said. Privately, he now thought this was the day to break 9,000.

Thompson threw 145'6" in the discus, better than when he had set his world record in 1980. Hingsen, who looks as if he could throw 200 feet, simply spun softly and reached only 147'8". "The pole vault will be the key," said Pickering, and he would be right.

Meanwhile, Frederick was in good spirits. She had had no trouble with her hamstring in the long jump and went 20'3¼". Yet she lost the lead to Vater, who flew 21'3½" and was in front by 37 points with two events to go. That lasted only until Frederick's second javelin throw, which floated 158'4". Vater did 116'9", so there was a 297-point swing in Frederick's favor. She finished up with a personal best of 2:12.84 in the 800, which gave her an American record of 6,423 points, the highest ever behind the 6,716 world record and 6,621 and 6,551 performances of East Germany's Ramona Neubert.

"It was surprise after surprise out there," said Frederick. "I've decided to be more calm about all this. You know, some of it, the high jump especially, was just a joy to me."

That was about where she and Thompson parted ways. "The last three were trauma events, no question," he said. In the vault, he missed twice at 16'1", seeming out of control at the top of his ascents. The head wind grew stronger by the minute, yet he drove the pole into the box perfectly on his third try, swung smoothly and cleared by a foot. He came back with the pole balanced jauntily on his shoulder. "I was praying down at this end," he said, as if in astonishment at himself. "I saw a bit of paper on the runway and thought I'd knock it away, but before I got there the wind switched and blew it off.

"I thought, 'Aha, He's on my side.' Understand, now, that I only bother Him when I really need Him." One boost was all Thompson got, however, because he failed three times at 16'5", so gained no points on the record. "It was enough to escape," he said.

In the javelin the wind came from the right, making it difficult to keep the spear in the landing sector and almost impossible to get it to sail properly. Everyone's marks were subpar. Thompson had thrown 214'6" in his 1980 record performance. This time he did only 198'7". Hingsen was even worse, at 190'7½".

"I've never, ever, added up all my best marks to see what the point total would be," Thompson said. "That only gives you false hope, because you have to do them all in one meet. The javelin was a case in point."

Thus Thompson went to the 1,500 with 8,122 points (a world class decathlon in itself). To break Kratschmer's world record he needed to run the distance in 4:37. He had done 4:25.5 in his 1980 record. He began the race in earnest, turning the first 400 in 68.4, a 4:16 pace. But at the 600 he slowed abruptly. "The mind was willing," Thompson said, "but the body spoke otherwise." His next lap was 77 seconds, and then came a 76. If Thompson couldn't kick, that pace wouldn't be enough to get the record. But on the final backstretch he rose erect and accelerated. He powered down the home straight in fine style, crossed the line in 4:30.55 and stood there, the new world-record holder with 8,707 points, as his spent opponents dropped to the ground around him.

Thompson didn't even go to his knees, but his face showed what he had been through. "He was a liar, whoever coined that line about victory not making you feel tired," he said. "I've got burning feet, a wrecked back and a sore bum."

Hingsen, game to the last because he felt he had a shot at the world record, too, finished superbly with a 4:23.87 to lift himself to 8,529 points, making him the fourth-best decathlete ever. Hingsen had been second to Kratschmer when his countryman set his world record, and now he had a feeling of déj√†-vu. "A little more luck in the javelin, or the pole vault..."he said wistfully.

Even as he recovered, the usually antic Thompson remained muted, thoughtful. "This sort of score has kind of been in me for a couple of years, so it's more of a relief than a triumph to get it out," he said. "I don't feel a conqueror because you never conquer this thing, although I'm happy to have kept Hollywood Hingsen in second. But I feel more a survivor, yes, to fight another day.

It's hard to be philosophical when you hurt like this, but I think if this means anything, this half-great decathlon, it's that there's an even better one there to enjoy later. One that the announcer finishes by saying, 'In first place, with a record of nine thousand...'and the rest is lost in the cheer."



Thompson (18) indicated he "meant business" with a win over Hingsen (3) in the 100.



Thompson held on in the javelin (198'7") and pole vault (16'1") despite ill winds.



Frederick (center) won the hurdles and set a U.S. record of 6,423 in the heptathlon.



Jane jolted her rival, Anke Vater, with a 158'4" in the javelin throw.



Runner-up Hingsen hung up a fine 8,529.