The favourite going into the Moscow Games, the British decathlete delivered a series of top-level performances 39 years ago, on 26 and 27 July 1980, to win his first Olympic title. In the years that followed, he took gold at the European and World Championships and the Commonwealth Games, before retaining his Olympic title at Los Angeles 1984, setting a world record that would last for eight years. He is one of the greatest champions in the combined event’s history, which stretches back over a century.
In July 1904, at the Games of the III Olympiad in St Louis, 35-year-old British/Irish athlete Thomas Kiely won the all-around competition. This comprised 10 events (100-yard dash, shot put, high jump, 880-yard walk, hammer throw, pole vault, 120-yard hurdles, 56-pound weight throw, long jump and one-mile run) and was the precursor to the Olympic decathlon, even though these athletics events were listed as part of the gymnastics programme at the St Louis Games. The first real decathlon competition was won by the USA’s Jim Thorpe in Stockholm in 1912, and the history of the discipline continued to be written, albeit with no British contribution. For 76 years, Great Britain waited for a successor to Kiely.
In the mid-1970s, a young sixth-form student from Notting Hill, a suburb of London, was beginning to demonstrate a talent for sprint and jump events. Daley Thompson, born on 30 July 1958 to a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother, was spotted by coach Bob Mortimer, who suggested that he take up the decathlon. “Bob suggested the decathlon. I’d never done six of the events before.” A young Thompson took part in his first decathlon in 1975 in Wales, and won. “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 said.
Tour de force at Moscow 1980
At the start of the Olympic year of 1980, Thompson set his first world record in Götzis, on 18 May, with a total of 8,648 points – a record that would be beaten a month later by West Germany’s Guido Kratschmer (8,667 points). Kratschmer and his compatriot Jürgen Hingsen would become two of the British champion’s greatest rivals throughout his career, although neither of them would ever beat him in competition, and West Germany did not take part in the Moscow Games due to the boycott initiated by the USA.
The following day, on 27 July, cold, rainy conditions affected the British decathlete’s performances, but he still managed to maintain a high standard: 14.47 seconds in the 100m hurdles; 42.24m in the discus; 4.70m in the pole vault, in which he cleared the bar by some margin with his fist raised in the air; then an excellent 64.16m in the javelin. Heading into the final event, the 1,500m, his points lead was so substantial that his nearest rivals, the Soviet Union’s Yuri Kutsenko and Sergei Zhelanov, needed to beat him by more than 50 seconds. Mission impossible. Thompson eased his way through the race, finishing last with a time of 4:39.90, and comfortably won his first Olympic title with a total of 8,495 points, ahead of Kutsenko (8,331 points) and Zhelanov (8,135 points).
Holder of all titles, second Olympic gold at Los Angeles 1984
Concentrating on his strongest events – the sprint and jump events – in which he was far ahead of his rivals, Thompson twice set a new world record (8,730 points on 23 September 1982 in Götzis, then 8,774 points on 8 September 1983 in Athens). Having become European champion in 1982 in Athens, retained his Commonwealth Games title the same year in Brisbane and taken gold in Helsinki in the first-ever IAAF World Championships in 1983, Thompson simultaneously held all the international titles, and then defended his Olympic gold at Los Angeles 1984. Speaking about his great rival Hingsen, who had beaten his world record, he said: “There are only two ways he is going to take a gold medal home: he’ll have to steal mine or win another event.”
A dearth of successors
The greatest British decathlete of all time, and one of the best in history from any nation, secured his third Commonwealth Games title in 1986, before finally experiencing defeat, at the 1987 World Championships in Rome, where he finished ninth. He came fourth in his final Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988, and retired from sport in 1992.
Very few decathletes have reached the levels of consistency and success set by Thompson. There are some, however: O'Brien, a triple world champion (1991, 1993 and 1995) and Olympic champion at Atlanta 1996; the Czech Republic’s Roman Šebrle, the first man to achieve more than 9,000 points, silver medallist at Sydney 2000, gold medallist at Athens 2004 and world champion in 2007; and the USA’s Ashton Eaton, the only man since Thompson to win two Olympic titles (2012 and 2016), a two-time world champion (2013 and 2015) and world record holder several times. Without a doubt, Thompson more than holds his own in the list of the greatest ever combined event champions.