Four years ago, on the seventh day of the Moscow Olympics, it seemed Daley Thompson of Great Britain had the decathlon won with one event, the 1,500 meters, to go. He'd led since the first event, the 100, and now he sat in a small room under the stands at Lenin Stadium, waiting for the last few competitors in the field of 21 to finish throwing the javelin, the ninth of the 10 events. He figured he had about a 300-point cushion over his closest rival, Yuri Kutsenko of the Soviet Union. That meant Kutsenko could beat him by as much as 46 seconds in the 1,500, and Thompson would still win the gold medal.
After the effort and emotional discipline of the decathlon's two harrowing days, Thompson was finally letting it sink in. A gold medal was his.
He was joined by a teammate, decathlete Brad McStravick. "They done yet?" asked Thompson, swinging his feet happily beneath the table on which he sat.
"Almost," said McStravick.
Thompson noticed that McStravick's face looked strange. "You all right?" he asked.
"Mm," said McStravick. He looked away.
"Nothing terrible happened out there, did it?"
"Daley," said McStravick. "Kutsenko just threw one 250 feet."
"He what?" Thompson was off the table and storming around the room.
"Yeah, he's only 10 points behind you."
"But...but, he can run a faster 1,500 than I can!"
McStravick, apparently unwilling to watch the effects of this blow, headed back to the field. Thompson ran after him. "God," said Thompson, trembling. "I was sitting up there planning the party. My God, tell me he didn't really throw 250. He's never thrown within 30 feet of that."
McStravick looked like he was holding his breath. Thompson gaped at him. "He didn't," he roared. "He didn't!"
McStravick nodded. He'd picked his moment. He knew his man.
"McStravick, you're lovely," howled Thompson, as he went out for the 1,500. "Now I can enjoy it even more."
And enjoy Thompson did. He kept a careful eye on Kutsenko out front trying to overcome that impossible margin, but ran well within himself. He waved at his Auntie Doreen, at training partners in the crowd. "Then, right then, during the 1,500, was the time to realize that all the work had paid off," he said later.
The world record (at the time, 8,649 points) was theoretically in reach, with a heroic effort. "The record wasn't what I was there for," says Thompson. "If I'd been focusing for five years on breaking the record, then fine, but I hadn't. I'd focused on winning.
"And it isn't the little gold medal they give you at the end. It's the two days that matter. I wanted to enjoy it, to have it for myself.
"And besides, this wasn't my last decathlon. It wasn't my last Olympics. If it had been, I'd have run faster, because that would have been it."
He finished in 4:43.6, only 17 seconds behind Kutsenko, and won the gold medal by 164 points, with 8,495. When he took his weary victory lap, he got McStravick, who had placed 15th in the competition, to jog with him. "Good to have you along," he told him. "God, you had me. It was wonderful."
When you close your eyes and let your mind embroider some fancy imagery that might get across the essence of Daley Thompson, you find yourself long ago and far away. Comparisons with his forebears in the decathlon are only one place to start. Thompson is better than Bruce Jenner was in seven out of the 10 events. He's broken the world record three times, won that Olympic gold medal in Moscow and is favored—because he hasn't lost a decathlon that he's completed in five years and once during that time set a world record when badly injured—to win in Los Angeles.
But to stop there is to imprison Thompson in a single, albeit historic, dimension, that of brute achievement. Equally compelling is how he honors the decathlon with a fidelity that has been lacking in some of his predecessors as Olympic champions. They won their gold medals and said something like, "I sacrificed a lot for it, but winning makes it all worthwhile"—that's Jenner talking in Montreal—and walked away. The life of constantly revolving among the decathlon events, no matter how long they had pursued it, was an imposition, an unnatural strain on family, career, or simply strength of will. When it had brought its reward, it was time to go.
But when Thompson won in Moscow, though he took a moment or two for an ironic send-up of the Jenner/Spitz embrace of Hollywood and endorsements—he asked the gathered press, "What will I do now? Why, films, blue movies. You give me the details and I'll do it"—his simple conviction was that you don't just walk away from something you revere. The life his predecessors found sacrificial and exhausting was for him joyous in its daily rigor. He kept right on. As he put it recently, "I know what I'm rewarded by, and it's not rewards. Not in the sense of money beyond my needs. Not even fame, now that I've had a bit. For others there are bound to be things that call them more strongly. But for me, there is the life of a decathlete." This Thompson said with a grin almost obscene in its satisfaction.
That life, of which we'll see a slice later, is a simple one, saved from austerity by Thompson's fierce humor and carefully assembled and tempered training mates. Men like McStravick. Since 1976, Thompson's existence has remained elementally constant. He rises, breakfasts, travels somehow to track or gym, trains all day with an hour or two for lunch, travels back to wherever he began, eats and is trudging heavy-lidded to bed by 10. He sleeps 11 hours a night. Summer and fall, this is done in England. Winter and spring in Southern California.
This spring Thompson and U.S. sprinter Marty Krulee had leased a small house on the beach at San Juan Capistrano, found for them by 1968 decathlon gold medal winner Bill Toomey, whose office is nearby. Decathletes stick together.
Thompson has few clothes beyond an array of sweats. He never drinks. He takes no drugs at all, not even aspirin. "If he's sick," says Krulee, "the remedy isn't aspirin. It's light training and into bed."
On the larger question of steroids, Thompson has said simply, "There are rules for everyone. And everyone should follow them." Ron Pickering, the former British national coach and now a BBC analyst, once asked Thompson how he'd feel about a list of athletes prepared to take any drug test at any time. "Put me on it," Thompson said. "Put my name first."
"Beyond that," says Pickering, "if the International Olympic Committee decided, in some impossible scenario, to go back to the amateur rules of the '50s and said if you want to be in the Games, you have to give up the money from endorsements and shoe contracts, you have to be a perfect amateur, Daley would do it. The point is that he cares about the pure sport first, and throughout, and on and on."
Thus one strains to find a metaphor for Thompson. It's tempting to think in devotional terms, but not those of religion, for Thompson is quick to say that his way is for very few indeed. That seems to leave only love.
It's reflex by now to dub as a true romantic any fictional lover who lasts out three days of a miniseries. There's hardly anyone left who would find comprehensible the Renaissance poets of the 14th century. They reached their pinnacle in Dante's lifelong worship of Beatrice, whom he made his guide to Paradise in the Divine Comedy, reworking her until she was composed of holy light. Now that was romanticism, that long, deliriously abandoned idealization that began with a Florentine matron who married someone else and ended with blinding, pure spirit. But mention to your career counselor today that you're considering a lifetime of burning for unearthly union with the essence of purity, and see how fast he'll call the guys in the white coats.
So we won't call Thompson a romantic, even though we're talking about one who loves, and keeps on loving, and takes it to extremes.
"After eight years, couples have nothing to say to each other any more," the San Jose Mercury recently reported. But there are people who keep talking. Attachment doesn't wear off for them. There are people, like Thompson, for whom constancy is merely the working out of their own nature, not fanaticism.
But if such a person is placed in a society that presents him with unattractive choices, with possibilities other than those he's driven to connect with, his nature will be unappreciated, and the pressure within him will begin to build. And if he then seeks out and pursues his own ends, and if he idealizes a little, if he refines some mundane thing he chooses to do, like vaulting over a bar or sailing a discus, to a level of grace, then he won't be a romantic, or in need of therapy. He'll be an Olympian.
Chief among these is Daley Thompson, for he has lifted the decathlon, the Games' most rigorous test, and made it seem light.
It's remarkable how descriptions of the child still apply to the man. "Small as he was," says Daley's brother Frank, nine years his senior, "if his playmates didn't do what he wanted, they got clumped."
"You couldn't help loving him," says Audrey Cooper, the matron at Farney Close Boarding School, where Thompson was sent when he was seven, "though you might want to wring his neck now and then."
"Ah, but if ever he was rude, he'd come back and say he was sorry," recalls Peg Kenward, who presided in the school kitchen. "And if his soft ways didn't work, he had others. He liked his milk. I'd be dealing it out, and he'd get hold of my arm in a vise grip and I'd have to go on pouring it. Playing like, you know, but serious, too."
Lord, how those words echo. The boy they recall, energetic, cheeky, keeping his will disarmingly wrapped in frolic, is now a man who still operates the same way. Any look into Thompson is immeasurably assisted by perusal of the book Daley Thompson—The Subject Is Winning, by Skip Rozin, which came out last year in England. Rozin's painstaking research of Thompson's early family and school life, which yielded the memories quoted here, is especially valuable, because Thompson is politely loathe to go over that ground in any detail. "I'm not interested in the past," he says. "People who don't have quite as high aspirations, people who think they've done enough, who've had their moment, tend to reminisce. I haven't had my moment yet. It's not time to look back." But when asked if the Rozin book is accurate, he says yes: "Even though I haven't read it very closely. I don't have to. I know the truth of it."
And Thompson expresses contentment with his teachers' recollections, seeming as they do to reveal a boy of some promise with his insistent ambition already visible.
He tells friends he had a good childhood. And he did, considering the success that is grounded in it, but success can be reached in two ways. We may excel in sympathetic response to an environment, or in reaction against it. The raw fact is that most people who have origins similar to those of Francis Morgan Thompson—born to a Nigerian father and Scottish mother on July 30, 1958 in the Notting Hill Gate area of London during the race riots of that summer, living there, his parents often absent working, until he was packed off to boarding school—very seldom taste the realization of even their most modest dreams.
If there was one thing the willful child was made to face on the streets of North Kensington, it was the inevitability of compromise. Nothing could have enraged him more. How he reacted—with defiance and humor—foreshadowed and shaped a career.
Thompson's mother, Lydia, was born in Dundee in 1927. She spent 4½ years in the army during World War II, packing gear for soldiers going overseas. After that, Dundee was too quiet, and she moved to London. There she met Frank Thompson, who had spent most of his life in Britain, but had been born in Nigeria, a member of the Ibo tribe. He was charming, handsome, powerfully built and ran his own cab company.
"Daley was his double," Lydia told Rozin. The name Daley arose out of necessity, what with his father Frank and his brothers Franklin and Francis all living under one roof. ("I guess they just couldn't think of any other names," says Thompson.) "When I called out for Frank, all three of them turned around," recalls Lydia. So Frank Sr. gave his youngest an African nickname, Ayodele, which got shortened to Dele and further corrupted to Daley. Until this year, Thompson didn't know what Ayodele signifies. A friend thus had the rare opportunity of telling him what his name means: Joy Enters the House.
"Perfect!" yelled Thompson. "That was the only thing they got absolutely right."
"That child was a terror from the minute he was born," says his mother. "He never cried, but he never slept either. A photograph of Daley, nine months old, prone, naked, doing a one-armed push-up from his blanket, is arresting. Most babies' faces look like Winston Churchill's or J. Edgar Hoover's in their last, bald, puffy years. Thompson looked startlingly like the Thompson we see today, absent the mustache, but with great, watchful, world-absorbing eyes and a mouth clearly expressive of the conviction that now that he was here it was just a matter of time until everybody else had to settle for second.
He was a completely mobile, articulate human being by the time he wks 14 months old. "And by the time he was seven, he was a handful," Lydia told Rozin. "He was still hyperactive. He didn't want to go to bed, he didn't want to do this, he wanted to do that. I couldn't keep up with him."
So he was sent to Farney Close, in the Sussex village of Bolney, about 40 miles south of London, on the road to Brighton and the sea. "I remember standing on the platform at Victoria Station," Thompson says, "...looking forward to an adventure. Then I looked around the platform and saw the other boys waiting for the same train. They were crying and I wondered why. I guess I knew.
"Of course I didn't want to leave home. But I was a pain in the neck when I was little, because I liked doing what I wanted to, and I was always arguing with my mother. So they sent me to boarding school. But it ended up just great. That's the story of my life. I always seem to fall into s—and come up smellin' o' roses."
The only exception one might take with that assessment is its implication of luck. If something keeps happening and happening, ultimately one must conclude there's some intent somewhere. But Thompson was fortunate that Farney Close was designed to encourage and discipline children who had difficulty living at home and attending regular schools. Its 75 students are taught by a staff of 32.
Here, simply, Thompson was at home. The teachers helped him, surely, but they didn't become surrogate parents. It was the fields, the soccer pitch, the track and jumping pits, that became the first in a series of hundreds of such places that, he says, always make him feel he has come to the right place. "I get a real thrill from being on a track," he says. "I'm at home there. There's no place I'd rather be, even if I'm not doing anything, even if I'm just watching kids."
At Farney Close, Thompson was never just watching. At first, he ran free over the fields. From the age of 10 he played soccer every day after school and for three different clubs on the weekends. Then, heeding his own sense of what he liked, what he was made for, he concentrated on sprinting and jumping.
George Money is a teacher who used to photograph Thompson on the fields. "He had that automatic feel for running," says Money. "And when he learned to jump, it was the same thing. Physically he was very gifted. But mentally he had that bit of vital grind, or whatever it is, a mental toughness. He took winning very seriously. Oh yes, he wanted to win and when he won he was happy. He was never vicious, but he never let up. Going, always going."
It was Money to whom Thompson came the first time he was written about in The Mid-Sussex Times. "George, what does this mean, 'the dusky youngster.'?" asked Thompson.
"That's their way of saying you're black."
"Why don't they say black, then?"
"It's not polite to do that."
Thompson isn't the product of a black culture. He's an Englishman. When he says something like, "Expensive cars go against everything I stand for," it has to do with class, not race.
Money has these beginnings fixed in memory. "I can see him now," he says, "late at night, running out there, a shadow moving before the trees."
"Dusky shadow," adds Thompson.
It's easy, as a kid, to think you'll never catch up. You can see that other people, older kids and adults, know huge amounts already; if you learn fast, they'll learn just as fast, and stay forever ahead. If you're rational, it's hard to realistically imagine ever coming to prominence, ever winning.
But the hunger doesn't spring from reason. And the thing that defined the young Thompson was the competitive fire, the urge to challenge. Everybody recognized this when he was a child, and played on it if they dared. His older brother Frank, who now operates betting shops and a grocery in London, used to get Daley into Monopoly games. Frank artfully cheated by shifting cheap hotels to expensive properties. "When Daley thought he was aggrieved, up went the board," says Frank. "Even if I played it straight and was winning, up went the board."
Yet winning is more than the mere rejection of loss. In Thompson's case, it took the form of a rigorously positive, jaunty view. This child knew that casting a bitter eye back got you nothing. Years later, in a comment about others, but one that was revealing of his own philosophy, he would say that good athletes are artists, yes, but of a special category: "The ones who are free of self-destructive tendencies."
Once this attitude was in place, it was unshakable. When Thompson was 12, his father suddenly died. And in any conversation, Thompson makes it clear with long silences that this isn't a subject for review. Thompson came up from school, but the person who most effectively saw his mother through this trauma was her close friend, Doreen Rayment. Indeed, Rayment had been with her at the hospital when Daley was born and had often driven Lydia down to Bolney to watch Daley run races or play soccer. Though no relation, Thompson knew her as Auntie Doreen.
Rayment is an administrator at the Kensington and Chelsea Play Association, a youth recreation service. During summer vacations, when Thompson returned to London, she guided him into track programs. By the time he was 16 and leaving Farney Close, he'd won the Sussex Schools 200 meters championship, but that summer, at the rainy, 1974 Amateur Athletic Association junior championships at Crystal Palace, he didn't make the finals in the 200 and scraped in sixth or seventh in the 100. He was in anguish.
Whereupon Auntie Doreen introduced the stunned Thompson to Bob Mortimer, coach of the Essex Beagles club, who invited Thompson to come work out with his athletes. Thompson did, was put in with the best sprinters and showed quickness but atrocious form. At once he decided Mortimer's coaching was for him. He still holds 14 of the club's 46 individual records.
Thompson's early years of sport can be understood in terms of two decisions. The first was to change from sprinting to the decathlon. Mortimer knew of Thompson's speed but saw that his jumping ability, and his size, which is vital for the throws, made him a natural for multi-event competition. "He wasn't very enthusiastic," says Mortimer. "He was very impressed with his own sprint potential, and that was what he liked best. Too, he had trouble with some of the new events. His discus wasn't very good. And I wouldn't call what he did pole vaulting. He scrambled up the pole and threw himself over. The first meet he tried it, he crashed on his back and hurt his bottom."
But Thompson kept at it, still feeling himself a sprinter dabbling in this multi-event stuff. But Mortimer had no such ambivalence. It was he who introduced Thompson and some other Beagles to British decathlon coach Bruce Longden. Sundays, they trained with him, the rest of the time they worked out with the Beagles. In 1975, Thompson, still 16 and having to get special permission to compete since the rules barred anyone less than 18, went to Cwmbran, Wales, for his first decathlon. And went wild. He won with 6,685 points, 2,000 more than the British record for 16-year-olds.
He was hardly awestruck. In fact, awe is an emotion that appears denied to him. "That first one," he has said, "that was an all right kind of one. It didn't seem to be too difficult, but then I had nothing to base it on.... Still, after it was over, I knew it was something I could do. You have a feeling about those things."
Remarkably, Thompson still wasn't sold on being a decathlete. Even after he won the 1975 AAA junior championships with 7,008 points, more than the senior winner, he resisted. "He still wanted to be a big sprinter," says Dave Baptiste, who was his closest friend on the Beagles and a 10.47 sprinter himself. "A lot of blood and tears were shed about that. It was hard convincing him he could only go so far, and then, after that, he wouldn't go any farther. Mortimer admitted Thompson could be a good sprinter, but said he could be a great decathlete. Still Thompson fought it."
Finally, at the end of the season, after another British junior record of 7,100 points, Thompson embraced the decathlon. The commitment, coming a year before the 1976 Olympics, meant that he'd have to rearrange his life around training, around Longden. Thompson says there was no precise moment of decision: "It wasn't that one day I was a sprinter and the next I was a decathlete [after all, decathletes must sprint]. It just seemed natural, and it's been that way ever since. It's me now, and I can't remember it being any other way."
This is a shade disingenuous. Thompson's memory is virtually photographic. If Thompson says he doesn't remember something, it's shorthand for not wanting to dwell on it, for feeling it healthier, more positive, more protective of his interior energies, to ignore the subject for now.
The challenge he was taking on, to master the demands of 10 distinct events, increased exponentially the time he needed for training. And that in turn forced the second decision. His mother suggested he get a part-time job. Thompson said no, that he was going to be the best he could be. That meant he couldn't go to study biology and literature, which he proposed to do at Crawley College in London after getting a small grant, train and work all at once. "It was the athlete's and artist's arrogance, that certainty of how good he could be," says Pickering.
"It was my own bloody-minded-ness," says Thompson. "And she took it well. She said, 'Get out. Get out of this house.' "
Thompson did, to live with Doreen Rayment in London. The strain between mother and son continues to this day. Lydia told Rozin that she can sense it even when they speak on the phone. "There were thousands of athletes like him then," Lydia says. "The streets were full of them. I felt what he should be doing was working. I had no idea what his potential was or where it would lead. I thought I was doing the right thing. If I was wrong, I'm sorry."
She was wrong, but how could she know? There's no great athlete who didn't at one time see perfectly clearly how he'd improve to supremacy. But there are thousands who saw the same vision perfectly and never made it. Ambition is only part. Talent is only part. Guidance and opportunity are only parts.
And yet another part, a crucial one for Thompson, was the camaraderie, the rough mutual goading by which a company of athletes pushes itself to heights few would reach alone. At Crawley, in 1975, Thompson became friends with Richard Slaney, who was studying aeronautics. This is the same Richard Slaney, 6'8" and 295, who would break the British discus record and ultimately become the close and protective friend of Mary Decker. But first he protected Thompson. He put the shot and threw the discus with him. They lifted weights together. "And him being little [Thompson was then a mere 6'1", 181 pounds], I used to look after him," Slaney says.
Thompson met decathletes, too, among them Clifford (Snowy) Brooks, who was 31 when Thompson was 16. "Somebody said this little 16-year-old kid scored 6,685 points," Brooks once recalled. "And I said something like, 'That's a really good score, Daley. I'll have to buck my ideas up.' He turned around and said, 'Yep, and next time, I'm taking you.' Right away I reckoned this kid was O.K."
If Thompson was upbeat, Pan Zeniou was gloriously expansive. Born in Cyprus in 1953, Zeniou came to England at age nine. A medium-sized man with dark curly hair and incandescent teeth, he was the senior decathlon champion outscored by Thompson when he was a junior. "He overshadowed everything around him," Zeniou has said. "He showed you how inadequate an athlete you were." That established, Thompson then gathered up all these disparate men and made them his own.
"Daley looks for commitment in his close friends," says Kevin Cosgrove of the BBC. "He's a fanatic about his sport. Every day he's looking to get an improvement somewhere. So for him to get on with someone, that person must be able to understand that imperative. Consequently Daley challenges people to see how they'll react. He's looking for competitors. He wants something almost Jesuitical in friends."
Once assembled, "the lads," as Thompson calls them, lent him support in pursuit of his competitive goals, and Thompson was boosted to startling improvement. But it was all done with a certain earthy style.
"While practicing starts," says Thompson, his memory functioning perfectly, "every time Zeni would walk back to the blocks, he'd spit on the track, right where you put your hands when you were in the starting position. After eight or 10 starts you'd find yourself all doubled up or stretched out like you were doing some weird push-up to avoid this mess on the line."
The acts of revenge and counter-revenge are now into the thousands. "In the Europa Cup finals in Sofia just this last September," says Thompson, "the guys took Zeni's clothes off and threw him out into the street naked. Three girls passed. And they just laughed at him. And he started crying." That final reaction, that rare success of momentarily breaking down a friend's last defenses, is a Thompson delight. He once threw Olympic 100-meter champion Allan Wells into a hot spring in Rotorua, New Zealand. "He came out," says Thompson, savoring the thought, "all lobster red."
Others, nonathletes, suffer even harsher stings. Pickering says, "He doesn't suffer fools gladly," and recalls that five years ago Thompson said to a group of British reporters, "You want to talk? You list for me the five events of the second day of the decathlon, and I'll give you 20 minutes."
Not everyone, even among athletes, appreciates this. "His treatment of people can seem cruel," says Decker. "The way he left Richard to find his own way home from some out-of-the-way track in Helsinki last summer just seemed too much to me."
These sorts of goings-on weren't too much for the toughening psyche of the young Thompson, for he got as good as he gave. The lads were in it together. And with the lads to emulate, and with Longden to coach him, and with his own remarkable ability to learn physical movement finding full expression, Thompson quickly showed himself to be a prodigy.
"I had no idea anything special had begun," says Auntie Doreen. "The decathlon was a non-event in England. I met all the boys, and they were great guys; they'd made a fuss of him. I thought that was really nice. And that's all I thought. I never thought it was the start of a great career."
Then she watched him try to qualify, at 17, for the 1976 Olympics. He needed 7,650 points. After nine events he had 7,026. To get the requisite 624 more, he had to run the 1,500 in 4:25. His best was 4:31. "I thought it was beyond his capability," says Auntie Doreen. "I was right at the finishing line, down on the track. It's so informal at decathlons. I'd recently had a hip operation and still needed a crutch. I remember hanging on the fence with one hand, and I had my crutch in the other hand.
"Every time he was going around I was timing him with the stopwatch. I was screaming at him to 'hurry up, hurry up.' When he came up to the 100 meters he had something like 10 seconds left and I thought, 'Oh, no, he can't make it.' But he just put that little spurt on, and he got over the line, and when I looked at my stopwatch he was about a half-second inside the time. I just let everything go and sat down on the track."
Thompson's time was 4:20.3, still his best. When he regained his breath, he went to Rayment. "He gave me a hug, and then went and got me a chair, and then I made a fool of myself as I always do and burst out crying."
Thompson was an Olympian, the youngest in the decathlon since Bob Mathias, who was three months younger when he won the first of his two gold medals in the event, in London. In Montreal, Thompson finished 18th with 7,435 points. He'd been a little distracted soaking up the atmosphere, the lore, the ways of the Olympics. He studied Jenner, who was systematically constructing a world record of 8,617. "If I were the kind of person to be impressed," he has said, "Jenner would have impressed me. He looked relaxed and under control, rattling off one personal best after another [Jenner would exceed or match his previous marks in seven of the 10 events]. But I saw that, well, he wasn't that talented, physically. He was just a hard worker. I learned that from him, the necessity of it."
Talent, for a decathlete, can come in many forms. An exceptional thrower can amass a respectable score even if his running is modest. A jumper will find several events where he can rack up big points. But, as Thompson saw it, the key to greatness had to do with speed. This wasn't just his old soft spot for sprinting reasserting itself. Nine of the 10 events place a premium on swiftness afoot, or, in the throws, its close relative, explosiveness. These were precisely Thompson's gifts. The sooner he fully developed them and learned to better apply them to the vault, javelin and discus, he felt, the sooner he would reign supreme.
David Hemery, the 1968 Olympic 400 hurdles champion, recalls Thompson being astonishingly brash about his expectations. "When Jenner said that he was naming his new company '8,617,' after his score, Daley turned to me and said, 'I think mine will be 9,090.' "
"I've changed a lot since then," says Thompson now. "I've got a lot more confident."
But when Thompson sat down in 1976 to work out a schedule for his improvement, he was a realist. "I reckoned in four years I could be in the top six in the world, and so I would possibly have a chance for a bronze in Moscow. But in eight years, I could win. I reckoned in 1984, with eight years of work, I could win."
Thompson wasn't as wrong about his potential as his mother, but his timetable wasn't accurate. In 1977, on a hot two days in Madrid, he scored 8,190 points to become the first Briton ever to surpass 8,000, and the youngest of any origin to attain that level.
"I was really pleased with it at the time, but I thought to myself, 'Boy, I can do 8,300 next time,' " says Thompson. "That's the way I always think. If I can do that with this rubbish, next time I can get it together a bit better."
The next year, in the British Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, he put together a terrific first day, including a 10.50 in the 100 and a wind-aided 26'7¼" in the long jump, to reach the halfway mark with 4,550, which put him 253 ahead of Jenner's pace when he set his world record in Montreal. "But of course there's no such thing as 'pace' in a decathlon," Thompson has said. "Everyone has his own strengths and weaknesses. Jenner was a good thrower and 1,500 runner. He always was at his best on the second day."
Thompson, by contrast, started his second day by hitting nine of the 10 high hurdles. "I was thinking about winning," he said. "I should've been thinking about hurdling." He concluded with 8,467 points, becoming the third-best in history behind Jenner and Guido Kratschmer of West Germany. He was 19 years old. Now, he recalls that competition as a pleasant romp, for which he credits Zeniou.
"He wasn't selected for the British team," says Thompson. "We left and went to Edmonton, and he was at home. Zeni comes to the airport, says goodby to me, and that was that. I said, 'Zen, I'll see you when I get back. Sorry you couldn't come.'
"So we get to Edmonton and I'm at a disco that evening. All of a sudden somebody comes up and puts his hands over my eyes. It was Zeni. He never told me he was going to represent Cyprus. But after half an hour I believed him. I was really happy. When I go to a decathlon, I need someone to chat to, just so it's not a big occasion. That's when you perform best, when you feel at ease. We had a good time, and he did all right. I think he came in third or fourth."
Then came the 1978 European Championships, in Prague, and this time there was no Zeniou. "I didn't have anybody to talk to, nobody at all," says Thompson. "Nobody there speaks English. I was lonely, and I was cold. It was raining.... It took three hours for the high jump."
Thompson's redoubtable first-day speed in the 100, long jump and 400 gave him a 288-point lead over Aleksandr Grebenyuk of the U.S.S.R. But on the second day he couldn't hold it. His hurdles were slow and he vaulted two feet lower than he had in Edmonton. When Grebenyuk threw 222'3" in the javelin, Thompson was second.
"After the javelin, I didn't want to run the 1,500, because if I wasn't going to win, I didn't really care," Thompson says. "I just wanted to go home. Then I met Brendan Foster, the Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000 in Montreal. He told me something I'll remember all my life.... If you can't take the gold, take the silver, because you'll only feel worse if you come all this way and have nothing to show for it. So I got myself together and I went out and ran."
Thompson had to beat Grebenyuk by 8.5 seconds in the 1,500 to close the gap. Grebenyuk set the pace. His teammate, Kutsenko, the man who two years later would have to beat Thompson by three-quarters of a lap to win in Moscow, was on this occasion the designated hatchet man. He elbowed and blocked Thompson as much as he could. Thompson finally got around him, and then Grebenyuk, but he could only drive himself to a margin of 1.6 seconds. It was—and is—the only decathlon Thompson ever lost.
"It was devastating," he has said. "It wasn't that I let other people down. I don't care about anybody else. Man, it was me. I let myself down.... I've never considered suicide, so I don't know for sure, but I would think that's how people feel. Suddenly it's worse than it's ever been and you can't imagine it getting better.... Nothing matters because you lost. You knew you were going to win and you lost."
Thompson now speaks of Prague as both object lesson and abiding horror: "It was a good learning experience.... The value of it is that I've learned to prepare myself for whatever comes up. I do, now. I don't want another Prague."
By Moscow, Thompson's second-day events were improved enough that he won, as we have seen, laughing. Then, in 1982, in G√∂tzis, Austria, which annually has a splendid, if sparsely attended invitational decathlon and heptathlon, Thompson showed, if only to one or two people, what he was prepared to do to maintain his dominance. In 1980 he'd broken Jenner's world record at this meet, by five points. But less than a month later, Kratschmer had taken it up to 8,649. Thompson wanted it back.
But in G√∂tzis, he met two opponents who are with him still, J√ºrgen Hingsen of West Germany, the present world-record holder (see box, page 210), and pain. After Thompson won the 100 in 10.49, his first try in the long jump was 25'11½". Hingsen surpassed that by a quarter-inch, and then Thompson, saying, "I've got a big one in me," flew out to 26'1". When he landed he felt jolting pain in his lower back.
Pickering says, "He went gray it hurt him so much. He came to me and said, 'I've done my back. What can I do?' He was pouring cold sweat and made me swear not to tell anyone. We got into the training room and shooed everyone else out, and then the physiotherapist put a towel around his chest. I put a towel around his feet. And we laid him out and pulled with all we had. He wouldn't take one painkiller. And he wouldn't miss one attempt in the high jump. He can take pain like no one I've ever seen."
Thompson sat with this reporter in the intervals between those high jump attempts. "Where have you been?" he was asked. "Just a twinge," he said. "You know, I think this is going to be a great, great decathlon. Hingsen could break the world record and get second."
He could have, because Thompson, hurdling and vaulting and throwing with that protesting back, set a mark of 8,704 points. Hingsen reached 8,529. But later in the summer Hingsen, as Kratschmer had done, took Thompson's record away again, with an 8,723. This was adding insult to injury. Thompson, vaulting at a club meet six weeks before, had had his pole break and lacerate his left elbow. The cut required seven stitches.
None of this mattered, for there was a chance for a final accounting. The 1982 European Championships were in Athens. There, in near 100° heat, Thompson was supreme, leading all the way. Going into the last lap of the 1,500, the record looked out of reach. Then Kratschmer swung alongside and yelled at Thompson. Thompson couldn't make out the words, but he knew what they meant. Decathletes stick together. Together they accelerated, passing man after man. Thompson covered that final 400 meters in 63.5, to finish in 4:23.71. He had the record back, at 8,743 points. He stood with hands on hips on the track as all his opponents, Hingsen included, collapsed at his feet. Vengeance was his, for Prague, for everything. And still, he had no thought of quitting.
Since then he has won the Commonwealth Games decathlon again, and last year, after Hingsen had once more taken the record to 8,777 (on June 9 of this year, Hingsen raised it to 8,798), Thompson came back from a groin injury to win the world championships in Helsinki with 8,666 points.
So that is what it has got him, at 25, this life of persevering. The life and the man are inextricable by now; to know the one, you start with the other. We've begun with Thompson; in a moment we'll let him escort us through the events of a day or two. But first a moment to let Thompson define himself in the foreword he wrote for Rozin's book: "If people could understand just what is involved in preparing for and competing in the decathlon, it might make this strange relationship between athlete and fan more satisfactory for both of us. There is a feeling that anyone who performs in public becomes public property. I do not believe that.... What I owe [spectators] is what I owe myself—to do the very best I can each time I compete, or to stay at home.
"What I would like is for other people to understand this. Competition is my life—winning is my only goal. Everything I do is directed toward that end and I will never permit anything to jeopardize it.... Since winning is the only prize anybody cares about in this world, I would like people to know what it costs. And, also, that at least part of the bill is theirs."
That rings properly defiant, competitively fierce. But it will take a look at the life to see if it rings true.
Thompson and John Crist, the U.S. decathlon champion with a best of 8,149, have been inseparable training partners this winter and spring. When Crist competed in the Mt. San Antonio College decathlon in Walnut, Calif. in May, Thompson got sympathetically nervous. "I told him I'd have to take two days off," Thompson said. "I can't train while he's doing a decathlon. I surfer with him."
Here they are on a warm Southern California morning, refining their long jump take-offs at Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo. Their usual venue is Cal-Irvine, 10 miles from Thompson's house, but they range as far as UCLA, Long Beach State and Orange County College. They've come to Saddleback because the Irvine track is under repair. "Haven't seen the campus, just the track," says Thompson. "Doesn't seem safe to even go in the tall grass." Along the backstretch dozens of stenciled signs warn of rattlesnakes.
"We're concentrating on getting our last steps down, on increasing momentum," he says. They alternate their runs, each analyzing the other. "You're flying," says Crist, who's taller and leaner than the 6'½", 194-pound Thompson. With his own foot, Crist shows Thompson exactly how much he has overrun the board.
Then Thompson studies Crist. "If you can feel what you've done wrong, you've made some progress," he says. Crist runs and soars. "Much better, sounded better. You can hear the rhythm pick up—thump, thump—before you hit it."
"Hurdles next," says Thompson, who has acted as his own coach since 1980 and here is the one who directs the regimen. But first they dig in the sand with their hands, smoothing it some. "We're new to the place," says Thompson. "We don't know where they keep rakes and things."
They set up two flights of five high hurdles on the backstretch. Again they take turns. Crist is light on his feet, but not fluid over the hurdles. Thompson is even less the picture of the ideal hurdler. He isn't as flexible as you would expect of a multi-eventer. It's a triumph for him to keep his knees straight and put his knuckles on the ground. "Worst hip mobility in the world," he complains, and this accounts for his lunging, aggressive style. As his lead leg, his left, chops down over each barrier, his right arm comes around like an overhand punch. He runs each flight hard, cheeks puffed out, not breathing.
They do six flights with no more rest between each flight than it takes to watch the other take his turn and go back to the start. Then they sit, gasping, on a bench for a measured three minutes. "Because you can't do all the work a sprinter would do, and then all that a 400 man would do, and then a 1,500 man's workout, too," pants Thompson, "you try to combine elements from different events in training. So when you do hurdle work, you do it in endurance sets, and that will help in the 400. The decathlon makes you more systematic in your approach to life. You tend not to just go with one idea. You get a lot and sort through them. With a little bit more effort, you can kill two birds with one stone."
They are up for another six flights, always watching each other, now shouting encouragement more than instructions on technique as they tire and begin to hit hurdles. When they are done, the smooth rubber asphalt of Crist's lane is unmarked. Thompson's is full of holes in the pattern of his footfalls between hurdles. "I have shorter spikes," says Crist, grinning.
"More a difference of personality," says Thompson.
They walk to where they've left their sweats and bags. Decathletes are like porters. They're never free of luggage. And there's very little warming down, or even up. There's so much real work to be done that Thompson seems to regard transitional jogging as effete or, worse, as wasted energy.
While they change shoes, a few members of the college track and field team pass by. "I liked what you said in the paper, that you won't work until you're 30," says one, Yolanda Hughes, a hurdler and striking bodybuilder.
"Fifty!" yells Thompson. "You the one who called me ugly?"
"Yep," she says, passing lightly on. To a visitor later she will say, "I meant that what he said was ugly. Meaning great. I really thought he was good looking. But you'd have to be blind not to see you'd be dumb to let him know that. He already knows that."
Thompson is right. People understand him here.
For lunch he and Crist consume a world-class Junk-food meal: burritos and fries and about half a gallon of soft drinks—"No ice," instructs Thompson. Then they head home to the beach house for a nap. Well, Crist naps, his face on the sandy carpet. Thompson makes phone calls. When he's in California his major expense is the $500 a month it costs to call friends in England. When he's in England, he calls friends in the U.S. "It would really be cheaper to bring them all along," he says.
Thompson must be one of the world's greatest encouragers. On every track he is constantly introducing people and giving updates on their performances. Steve Cram, Britain's 1,500 world champion, calls from Australia to say his racing is going disastrously. Thompson gets him laughing about it. "I just love to chat, to banter," Thompson says after hanging up. "If you let me, I'll go on all night."
Dolphins languidly patrol just outside the surf even as Crist snores on. "But I like being away," Thompson continues. "Then I'm responsible to myself only. And since there's not a whole lot to do here besides get on with it, with the training, that's what I do."
"That could be spoken by an energy-filled person," says his visitor.
"Yeah, if I don't do things, do 'em hard, I don't sleep at night."
Even when a training break is taken, Thompson barely backs off. Recently he has taken up golf. "We were getting some clubs in a shop," he says, "and there was a machine to measure how far you could hit a golf ball by measuring your clubhead speed. They said no one, not even the best pros, hit it over 111 miles per hour. So one guy with us does 106, and Charlie Brown [an ex-UCLA pole-vaulter, who's a two-handicap golfer] does 111, and their eyebrows are raising. Then I do 125. And at once the guy is hollering, 'Well, it doesn't mean you can play golf! You can't hit it straight!' " This has been a good winter and spring. Thompson got his 100-meter best down to 10.36; his vault is still improving. "It's the first time in a long time without injury," he said in April. "First time I've felt: 'Geez, I'll only be 33 in 1992!' "
It isn't hard for him to imagine going on happily until then. Going for his fourth gold medal, if the Olympics last that long. "Sure, you want to have money, fast cars, but at the end of the day, I could stomach this forever. I'll bet when I'm 60 I'll be out there three days a week. All my training partners are older, you know. They're waiting for me to lose my speed. They figure they'll get me at about 45."
The coffee table is awash in three things: opened letters in a feminine hand, letters in a masculine hand sealed and stamped and ready to go out, and magazines. Track journals and Classic Car magazine.
"I saw a $130,000 Ferrari in Newport Beach," says Thompson, in a kind of keening, wounded tone. "My favorite is this one"—he tosses a rumpled magazine across the table—"Aston Martin Vantage. Goes 168 in fifth. Eighty in second. You never have to go out of second!"
He takes note of the consternation this is causing in his visitor, who gets jumpy in his VW just because it has been tuned up.
"I heard it takes one large herd of cows to upholster one of those," Thompson continues, pointing at the picture of the Aston Martin. "The engine has a plate engraved with the name of the man who built it, so when it needs work, it goes to its maker. No, of course I don't have a car. That's why I talk about them all the time."
"Does all this research mean that one day, when you can afford it, you'll really cut loose on one?"
"I know I could get to where I could afford one, but by that time I'll have found more important things to do with the money." These magazines, then, are a Thompson vice, a lurid fantasy, not to be confused with the fundamental joys of brutally hard work.
"You're always being asked," he says, "about the supposed irrationality of the decathlon. People who don't do it can't see the reward equaling the price. But to train hard is enough satisfaction in its own right. Whatever kind of athlete you are, say a distance runner even, when you're running eight hard half miles in your best average time for that workout, you know it's great. You can't beat it. You can't feel that every day, but I do 10 events. There's always somewhere to get excited. It's really fun."
Again, this is narrowly defined fun. "When I first saw him do a workout and be flat on his back for half an hour," says Marty Krulee, "I thought he was a wimp. Then he got me to do it and I was on my back for 45 minutes, thinking, 'My God, this guy feels like this every time he trains?' It took that to begin to get an idea of how tough he is."
"There are no secrets," says Thompson, who doesn't adjust his training according to who's taking notes. "It's like Coca-Cola. Everyone knows what's in it, but the proportions are the thing. It's paradoxical that the two days of competition are the easiest. The training is harder. The thing in competition is keeping concentration, holding it together, not getting the bad event, or if you get one, coming back from it. The championship of emotional control is living with a bad 100 for two days."
But it's even more subtle than merely not letting the negatives intrude. Thompson realizes this. "You've got to be stable, as levelheaded as you can, because you're always excited one way or another. There are no checklists of what to think about in the events themselves. That's why you practice, to make everything automatic in competition. I probably concentrate more on not getting too up or too down than on what I'm actually doing."
The essence of Thompson, then, is that he gets it together and keeps it there better than anyone else. This is his hard kernel of pride that will not crack. As such, he wishes not to dwell on it. Talk is just talk, even if true. "Most of the best athletes," he says, "if they're going to lose control and make mistakes, do it because they try too hard. Very few don't try hard enough. That's why they say the best people make things look easy. But it's hard to know when you're trying too hard. It's hard to define. It's up to that inside sense of yourself, knowing what's right for you." Hardly the thing a spy with a stopwatch could carry home. Hardly the thing even a mother could know.
"Come on, J.C., wake up," says Thompson.
Crist comes to and rises. The weave of the carpet is impressed on his cheek. "Mark of a decathlete," says Thompson pointing to Crist. "We don't care where we sleep."
In the car back to the track, Thompson explains how he decides what to work on most. "You look at the point tables. Where can you gain the most points with the least improvement? To get 100 points in the 1,500 you have to cut your time by about 15 seconds. Since miler's training would hurt my sprinting, it would be false economy. Speed helps everywhere but the 1,500, so I tend to strengthen my strengths, leave my weakness be."
It's not some vague, Grecian ideal of the perfectly balanced athlete that dictates how decathletes mold themselves. It's the scoring tables, which are periodically adjusted to account for technical advances in individual events but still contain peculiarities. "They're supposed to give 1,000 points in each event to a world-class mark," says Thompson. "In 1962, for example, they averaged the top 100 performances ever in each event and said that average would be worth 1,000 points. Then the fiberglass pole came in and skewed everything. You get more points in the vault than anywhere else." So it pays to be a proficient vaulter. Thompson's clearing of 16'8" in last summer's world championships in Helsinki was worth 1,075 points. His 4:29.7 in the 1,500 brought but 591.
If points are to express the true merit of a performance, the current tables, computed in 1962, have a flaw. In the running events, as athletes approach the world records, each tenth of a second is rewarded more. Going from 12.4 in the 100 to 12.3 earns 19 points. Going from 10.4 to 10.3 brings 27. Fine and natural.
"But in all the throws, the points decelerate at the top of the curve," says Thompson, now back at the track, getting his discuses out of the trunk of the Volvo. "Five feet of improvement at the short, easy end of the table in the javelin gets you more points than five feet up near the world record."
The practical consequence of this is that Thompson hones his running a little more finely than his throwing. It doesn't appear to him to be a grievous injustice. "Sure, it's arbitrary," he says, "but it's not as bad as somebody saying, 'Ah, I like the look of you today, you've got all those lovely sequins on your skates. I'll give you some more points.'
"New tables may be coming out in '85. I think I'm the world-record holder according to them, which will please all but the former. But we'd all still do it, even if the pole vault only got 10 points. If the tables changed tomorrow and suddenly Hingsen had the record 300 points ahead of me, I'd not think of quitting."
Thompson and Crist are throwing the discus now, one in the ring, one critiquing from the field. Thompson's personal best in this event is 155'8", and he's throwing close to that. This is part of a pattern. Thompson's daily work is often very close to his best.
He also can carry on three conversations while throwing. He's asked to consider whether this marvelous connection of his with the decathlon is somehow organic, like the chemistry of antibodies, say, which each have a molecular key that locks onto one precise target and no other. Could he literally have been born to do this?
"Too philosophical," he says. His tone seems to equate philosophy with child abuse. "It's wrong in the sense that I didn't go hunting for something, like lymphocytes do. I just did it all for fun."
He cringes a little, using that word. But beyond fun, what he does is nameless, inexplicable. You have to do it to know it.
Thompson and Crist do some strides on the grass and then set their blocks on the track for practice starts. They do six 40-yard races, with little rest, then recover for 15 minutes, then they do six more. The visitor gives them their commands and starts them with a handclap. All of Thompson's power is on display when he bolts away. "Best thing about you being here," says Crist to Thompson, "is that I'm learning not to press when I'm behind."
Thompson focuses on the starter so well that when Crist false-starts before the signal, Thompson stays right there in his crouch. "One of these days I'm going to do that in a race and get left," he says.
Again, they're ready and still. "This time, I'll just go on your reaction," says Crist. They rise to the set position. And Thompson, naturally, simply flinches, and then laughs at Crist rocketing down the track. Crist comes back in mock disgust. The moment brings out his earnestness, his willingness to play into Thompson's hands, a splendid foil to his rapier.
They finish up with intense, separate 160-meter sprints. On the last one, Thompson runs so hard that when he finishes he can only wobble on his heels as he turns to watch Crist. His shout of encouragement is but a dry rasp. Then they can sit, and cool. "Ah, I love it," says Thompson.
Later they will go with friends to an elegant restaurant in Newport Beach, where they won't quite blend with a dressy crowd. The thought will arrive that everything else we whip ourselves to succeed at comes well after childhood. But the athlete is first, and primal. He's the fundamental victor. Everything else, dominance in politics, finance, war—everything save art—is secondary. Those are what you have to do if you aren't the best athlete.
Thompson senses this. He knows he has the most envied life. Those other pursuits are all symbols of what he does. They, too, are battles for supremacy, but they've been removed from the athlete's arena and taken elsewhere. They are vicarious, perhaps sublimations, never as intensely satisfying as what he does.
Most athletes learn this, with a wrench or a gray, slow dawning, only after they can no longer be athletes—when they have to take up their own secondary pursuit. As Thompson says, "A man is lucky to find one great love, let alone two. Or to get back to your immune system: There's only one key for every lock."
Now as he sits on a hard bench beside a deserted track in the failing light, the pain of effort draining from his legs and lungs, being replaced by the old, comfortable ache, Thompson speaks of the Olympics, the fundamental arena. He doesn't do this often. When Pickering had asked him to talk for the BBC's camera about Moscow, "and look elated," Thompson had shot back, "I'm not elated. It's over. There's another one coming up."
But now he recalls watching his two countrymen, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe, race against each other in the Moscow 800 and 1,500. "Ovett lost the most in 1980," Thompson says. "After winning the 1,500, he would have had a chance had he won the 800 against the world-record holder, Coe, to show he was the greatest of all time, to be able to say when the chips were down, I beat the best there ever were. But when he lost to Coe in the 800, all that was lost."
He pauses. When he speaks again, it is with the only sentences of yearning he would utter in days. "I'd have loved to have had that chance. I look out for the chance."
Slaney, one of "the lads," lifted Thompson to new heights in Olympia, Greece.