Back in the mid 1970s, we started to go as a family to the Crystal Palace athletics track on a fairly regular basis. This was in the heyday of Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Mike McFarlane, David Moorcroft, a young Steve Cram and Kathy Smallwood, to name but a few. But, despite those stellar names, one man shone out more than most to me and that was Daley Thompson. He dominated his chosen event, the hardest of them all, the man killer, also known as the decathlon. In this Speakeasy, I’ll look at his early life and trace how he went on to become a legend of the sport.
He was born on July 30, 1958, in Notting Hill, London, and named Francis Morgan Ayodélé Thompson. Ayodélé is a Yoruban word meaning ‘Joy comes home’ and this morphed into Daley and that was what he became known as from an early age.
He was the second son of British Nigerian Frank Thompson, who ran a minicab firm and a Scottish mother Lydia. Growing up in a racially diverse and deprived neighbourhood – unlike a lot of it today – he was exposed to a variety of sports from a young age and it was during this time that he discovered his love for athletics, particularly the sprinting and jumping disciplines.
Frank left the family home when young Daley was just aged 6. He then found his way to the Farney Close Boarding School in Sussex, described as ‘a place for children facing challenges.’ Just before his teenage years, his father was shot dead in Streatham.
‘He was out of my life anyway, so it did not change me. The only thing I realised, when he died, was what a big family I had because they all came over from Nigeria.’
His mum didn’t react well when he told her he was going to dedicate his life to sport and told him he would have to move out.
‘Oh my God. My mum – a Scot from Dundee – was the key influence. She gave me this work ethic. I saw what she did and considered it normal to have three jobs as a cleaner and bring up kids on your own. She wanted me to stick to my studies, but I was luckier than most. I could stay with my aunt. Even when I won my Olympic medals my mum didn’t mellow. She never said she was wrong but that was her. She gave me a lot. I just loved sport so much.’
Whilst living in Sussex, he became a member of Haywards Heath Harriers, before he joined Newham and Essex Beagles upon his return to London. Originally training as a sprinter, his coach Bob Mortimer suggested he try the decathlon instead and he won his first competition in Cwmbran that same year. After also winning the AAAs title, he came 18th in the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
‘There was never a smidgeon of doubt. When I did my first decathlon, I knew I was going to be good.’
At the Montreal games he competed against his hero Bruce -now Caitlyn, following a sex change – Jenner, who would talk to and advise the young Daley.
‘All the time. He was really forthcoming. Terrific.’
His big athletics breakthrough came in 1978 at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada. At just 20 years old, he not only won the gold medal in the decathlon, but also set a new Commonwealth Games record. This victory marked the beginning of a remarkable career that would see him dominate the decathlon event on the global stage for the next 10 years. That dominance was characterised by the exceptional versatility needed to compete in the 2-day event. Day one consists of the flat 100 metres , the long jump, shot put, high jump, and the 400 metres. Day two begins with the 110 metres hurdles, then the discus, pole vault, javelin and finally the 1500 metres. Speed, strength, agility, and endurance are all a given, but Thompson also had that extra ingredient, that of being a formidable competitor.
The world became aware of this phenomenon at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Competing against a strong field, Thompson won the gold medal after setting a new world record of 8,648 points just a few months before. His victory catapulted him to international stardom and solidified his status as the world’s premier decathlete. In 1983, he won the inaugural World Championships and thus became the first athlete in any event to hold Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth Games titles simultaneously.
He successfully defended his Olympic title in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics, becoming the first decathlete in history to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals. His performances in Los Angeles were nothing short of spectacular, and he went on to shatter his own world record. In fact, each time he broke the world record it was with significant leaps forward, showcasing his incredible dedication and work ethic.
Beyond the Olympics, Thompson also dominated at World and European Championship level, adding multiple gold medals to his already impressive collection. His relentless pursuit of excellence made him a role model for aspiring athletes worldwide, and his impact on the sport of athletics cannot be overstated. His main rival for most of his time in the decathlon was the West German Jurgen Hingsen, who also held the world record from time to time.
‘Never lost to him and we competed from when we were 18. It was brilliant. He was the only reason I trained eight hours a day.’
His charismatic personality, on and off the track, endeared him to fans and made him a beloved figure in the world of sports, but he was also not unfamiliar with controversy, as his sometime irreverent personality and often anti-authoritarian attitude came to the fore. Memorably he wore a t shirt stating, ‘IS THE WORLD’S SECOND GREATEST ATHLETE GAY?’ thought at the time, to be directed at sprinter Carl Lewis who had to deal with those persistent rumours. Daley simply said.
‘The second athlete could be anybody, Carl Lewis, anybody…’
Thompson retired from competitive athletics in 1992, due to persistent hamstring injuries, leaving behind a legacy that few athletes could match. He remained involved in sports as a coach and mentor, passing on his knowledge and experience to the next generation of athletes, such as Erki Nool and Tamsyn Lewis. He also returned to his first love, that of football and played briefly for Mansfield Town, Stevenage and Ilkeston FC. He then became a fitness coach at both Wimbledon and Luton football clubs, and he opened his own gym, Daley Fitness, in 2015.
He won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in 1982, and was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1982, later becoming a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). He had three children with ex-wife Tish and two more with girlfriend Lisa. His son Elliot became the UK national decathlon champion in 2022.
His father was once called the greatest athlete the UK has ever produced.
No argument from me.
The Mumper of SE5
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THE SPEAKEASY VOLUME 3 – AVAILABLE NOW
THE SPEAKEASY Volume Three by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)
Illustrations by Lewis Wharton
Foreword by Eddie Piller
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