- 07 Sep 1960
- Rome 1960
Thompson steams across the line in 50km walk
As a youngster Don Thompson had been a keen runner, but an injury to his Achilles tendon halted his progress. Instead, he turned to the sport of walking, and soon found that he was a natural.
The British athlete took part in his first major race in 1952, from London to Brighton, a distance of more than 50 miles (80km). He came second, although it was the last time he was to be beaten in the event for the next eight times. His breakthrough performance confirmed his huge potential and he went on to represent Great Britain at the 1956 Games.
There was to be no road romance for Thompson on his Olympic debut, however. Competing in the 50km walk, Thompson withdrew, dehydrated and exhausted, just 5km from the end while lying fifth.
That experience was to guide his preparations for the Rome Games. He turned his bathroom at home into a customised training facility, using kettles of boiling water to fill it with steam, turning up the heating to maximum, and putting on his heaviest tracksuit. Only then would he start his exercise routine, as he attempted to recreate the likely heatwave he would face in Rome, but also inadvertently inhaling fumes from the paraffin heater, which left him feeling dizzy and light-headed.
Thompson, an insurance clerk who stood only 1.65 metres tall arrived in Rome equipped with sunglasses and a special racing sunhat that his mother had made. The Italian journalists called him “Il Topolino” (“the Mighty Mouse”). However, his unusual appearance and relaxed disposition disguised a steely resolve.
He led at the halfway stage of the 50km walk, with some of his closest rivals succumbing to the heat that Thompson had so meticulously prepared for.
Others were disqualified and it gradually became clear that the race was between him and the Swedish veteran John Ljunggren, who was just two days from his 41st birthday.
The pair were separated by just one second at one point, but Thompson then put on a fast finish. He was 100 metres ahead when he entered the stadium and, roared on by the crowd, went on to take the gold by 17 seconds, making it the closest finish ever witnessed in the event.Thompson set a new Olympic record, with a performance that was a testament to the value of coming up with a creative approach to acclimatisation!
He continued racing until he was 60. He finished one marathon, at the age of 50, despite breaking his collarbone in a fall two miles from the finish. And he still managed to drive home first, using just one hand, before going to hospital.
In 1991, at the age of 58, he became the oldest person ever to represent Britain in an international athletics meet. “Perhaps I am obsessive,” he said, “But occasionally, when I am training or racing, I have an incredible feeling, a tingling in my scalp, as if my head is about to take off.”