In the track and field program at a Summer Olympic games the title of best all round male athlete resides with the man who collects the gold medal for the decathlon. This ten discipline, two day event has provided many of the iconic figures of the modern Olympics. Jim Thorpe was the first great decathlon gold medallist, picking up the unique double decathlon and pentathlon victories in Stockholm 1912. Glenn Morris, the American gold medal winner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics not only showed his supremacy over his rivals, he also began a short tempestuous relationship with the director of the definitive official Olympic film of these games, Leni Riefenstahl. Bob Mathias took the gold medals in the first two Olympics after World War Two, in London 1948 and Helsinki 1952, whilst Rafer Johnson’s victory over C.K. Yang in Rome 1960 is one of the 101 greatest moments in modern Olympic history. Then in 1976 Bruce Jenner turned his decathlon triumph into a multi-million dollar industry back home in the USA. However the greatest decathlete of all time didn’t come from the United States like all these illustrious predecessors. The remarkable Daley Thompson won his first gold in the boycott-effected Moscow 1980 Olympics, then reached a new level of Olympic greatness in the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games.
Daley Thompson was born on July 30th, 1958 in the London suburb of Notting Hill, to a Nigerian father and Scottish mother. Whilst at a Sussex boarding school the young Thompson showed promise in athletics, which was further developed by a period at the age of 17 with the Essex Beagles athletics club. Prior to winning the 1976 British AAA decathlon title the young Briton went to Montreal and came 18th with 7434 points. It was an inauspicious start for an Olympic career that would stretch through to Seoul in 1988, and include not just two gold medals but also world championship titles, world records, European championships and Commonwealth Games gold medals as well.
At the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games Thompson won his first major international senior decathlon title, and in the period between then and Moscow 1980 he rapidly grew in stature and performance. His only loss in this period came in 1979 at the European championships; between then and 1987 Thompson never lost another decathlon. As the upcoming Soviet-hosted Olympics were threatened by a major US-led boycott Daley Thompson became engaged in a personal duel with West German decathlete Guido Kratschmer. Kratschmer was the then world record holder before the two met in May 1980 (by this time West Germany had joined the Moscow boycott). At this decathlon Thompson beat Kratschmer and set a new world record (8622 points). This performance established Thompson as a red hot favourite for the Olympics in Moscow, and whilst Kratschmer won the world record back his non-attendance(plus the absence of American and Canadian athletes) meant the Briton had the Moscow gold medal to lose. And he didn’t disappoint; winning the decathlon gold medal with a final score of 8522 and running 153 points ahead of his silver medallist rival Yuri Kutsenko.
Naturally with the non-appearance of the then world record holder, plus the overall paucity of quality opposition of the Moscow 1980 decathlon field, Thompson’s first Olympic decathlon gold medal could be regarded slightly tarnished by harsh critics. However the story would be dramatically different four years later in Los Angeles. The period between these two boycotted Olympics was dominated in decathlon by the hard-fought battle between Daley Thompson and new West German champion decathlete Jürgen Hingsen. These two would duel repeatedly over European, world championship and finally Olympic stages and in the process create one of the greatest moments in Olympic history.
Hingsen like Thompson was born in Duisburg in 1958, and the two first came into serious competition at a European Junior championship in 1977. At this event Thompson came first and Hingsen third. Hingsen developed slower than Thompson, and it wasn’t until 1982 that the West German claimed the position as the new threat to the British Olympic champion. At the West German championships that year in Ulm Hingsen set a new world record of 8723 points. This gave him the favouritism for the European championships in Athens, however Thompson took that title. In 1983 Hingsen set another new world record point score the decathlon, scoring 8779 at Bernhausen. Yet again however at the next major international track and field meet (the 1983 Helsinki IAAF World Championships) Thompson defeated Hingsen, with the scores being 8714 points for the Briton and 8561 for the West German. For a third time Hingsen set a world record (8798 points), this time at Mannheim in 1984; the third time he had achieved such a result on West German soil. The question was would Hingsen be able to buck the trend of losing out to Thompson on foreign soil for a third time. The next meeting of the two in such conditions would be the Los Angeles Olympics.
During the final months of the lead up to the 1984 Summer Games Thompson again and again added personal colour to his rivalry with the so-called “German Hercules”. When Hingsen claimed he would be winning gold in Los Angeles Thompson claimed “There are only two ways he is going to bring a gold medal home; he’ll have to steal mine or win another event.” For other Olympians this could have been called arrogant; yet Thompson’s clowning and cheeky sense of humour excused him from most criticism. He also called the West German “Hollywood Hingsen” because he resembled the actor Burt Reynolds, whilst in a separate showing of supreme confidence Daley Thompson wrote a postcard to dual decathlon gold medallist Bob Mathias saying “I’m coming to get you.” When it came to mind games the Briton was setting a leading pace from his West German and other rivals.
On August 8th 1984 athletes from 18 countries began the 10 event final chase for decathlon gold. Unlike 1980 the field wasn’t as significantly weakened by the revenge boycott implemented by the Soviet-bloc at Los Angeles; Thompson and three West Germans, Hingsen, Kratschmer and Siegfried Wentz formed the core lead group, whilst the Americans expected to do well with home soil advantage and world championship entrant John Crist. The first event was 100 metres, and Thompson (who could perform creditably in 4×100 metres relays at Olympic and Commonwealth Games) raced Hingsen and Kratschmer. Setting his best ever time for the distance in a decathlon Thompson scored 948 points with his time of 10.44 seconds. Hingsen was third behind Kratschmer as well, and down by 122 points from the Briton.
Thompson had another win in the next event, the long jump (his result would have earned him fifth in the final of the LA 1984 long jump final), but Hingsen narrowed the gap slightly. The shot put followed and this was an opportunity for Hingsen to reclaim more ground between him and Thompson. However Thompson again rose to the occasion and putted the shot to a personal best of 15.72 metres. Hingsen was behind the defending Olympic champion and he wasn’t as yet able to pull in enough points at this stage to threaten Thompson yet. The high jump however saw Hingsen make up some ground, with his final height of 2.12 metres clawing back 77 points from Thompson. Importantly for Hingsen he aggravated a knee injury in his right leg, receiving four pain killing injections to continue competing. This may not have stopped Hingsen physically yet it did work against him mentally, and the coming final event of the day needed strong legs.
The last event of the decathlon’s first day was the 400 metres. Thompson reasserted his pre-eminence with a win against Hingsen and the American Jim Wooding. The close of the first day saw the West German world record holder on 4579 points and the British reigning gold medallist from Moscow on 4633 points. Hingsen was only trailing his world record by 17 points, but Thompson was 114 points ahead and had achieved the highest first day score in an Olympic decathlon. It appeared that Thompson would surpass the slightly injured Hingsen and win his second Olympic decathlon title.
The second day of the 1984 decathlon began with the 110 metres hurdles. Hingsen clawed back all of 6 points and so stayed in the silver medal ranking. The seventh event was the discus, and it was here that Hingsen finally unleashed his promise. On his first throw the West German reached 49.80 metres; his best ever result in a decathlon. Thompson on the other hand had a poor first throw, sending the discus down range only 37.90 metres. Hingsen’s second throw was even better, reaching 50.82 metres and applying significant pressure to the Briton. Daley Thompson improved only marginally, and with Hingsen’s last throw not improving his position the lead was posied to change. As Thompson later described it, he was looking over the edge and needed to meet the challenge. And like every great Olympic champion he did; the third throw from Thompson sailed to 46.56 metres. It was another personal best for Thompson and whilst Hingsen had won this round with 888 points, the Briton still led. It was getting closer and closer to crunch time.
The eight event was the pole vault and it was here that Hingsen unfortunately suffered the effects of illness, effectively ending his hopes. Before his first two vaults the West German had vomited twice, and his best height after three attempts was a sub-par 4.50 metres. Thompson on the other hand flew over the bar, and with his best height being a full half metre above Hingsen (earning him 1052 points) the gold medal was almost around the Briton’s neck. In the penultimate round (the javelin) Hingsen again underperformed whilst Thompson took 824 points with his throw of 65.24 metres. Then it came down to the final race; the 1500 metres.
In the closing event of the 1984 Los Angeles decathlon Thompson knew he had gold, but on his horizon was beating Hingsen not just in places on the medal stand but also in the world record point score. Needing a time of 4 minutes 34.8 seconds Thompson literally strolled to the finish line. His time was 4 minutes 35 exactly, which meant he fell a single point shy of equalling Hingsen record. The first double decathlon gold medallist since Bob Mathias (who as promised he had ‘caught’), Daley Thompson took a victory lap of the LA Olympic Coliseum track, showing his joy whilst pointedly criticising the jingoistic coverage of the American host broadcaster. Wearing a t-shirt that read “Thanks America for a great games,” on the front and then on the reverse “But what about the TV coverage?” he was met by Princess Anne (herself an Olympian). Later when asked what she had said to him, Thompson again revealed his comedic side; “She said I was a good looking guy!” joked the Briton. To add a much later layer of glory on his victory, in 1986 the IAAF established that Thomspon had run one second quicker than recorded in the 110 metres hurdles, hence claiming that single point he needed to equal Hingsen’s record.
For Great Britain and for Daley Thompson Los Angeles was a golden games, and whilst Hingsen had been competitive at these Olympics up until the discus there was no denying that the dual gold medallist from the United Kingdom was the best decathlete of his generation. Three times the great rivals had met in major international championships and each time Daley Thomspon had prevailed. Later Thompson continued to Seoul where he placed a credible fourth, whilst Hingsen suffered the crushing disappointment of being disqualified for false starts in the 100 metres. In some ways this served as the perfect postscript for an epic duel between two great Olympians; one who scaled amazing heights, one who was unable to reach the potential he had displayed away from the cauldron of Olympic decathlon competition.