When talking about Olympic legends you do not need to go any further than Daley Thompson. One of Team GB’s heroes did not only win the decathlon’s gold medal in the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games but also remained unbeaten in his event for nine (!) consecutive years between 1979 and 1987 – a time in which he also became World and European Champion. This year, Daley returned to the Games when he joined fellow legendary athletes Haile Gebrselassie, Edwin Moses, Dick Fosbury and Maurice Greene for a press event at the adidas London 2012 media lounge near the Olympic Park.
As soon as I heard about the ambassadors coming together, I had to think back to another memorable Daley Thompson moment. On December 11, 2008, we met the legend in London to interview him for our employee brand book. He shared timeless insights about his career and achievements, his memories of the Games he participated in and how much he is looking forward to London 2012 to cheer for the team he was once an active part of.
Enjoy the interview!
“What I am really best at is winning”
Daley, your golden decade coincided with a golden age of British athletics altogether – Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and the rest. Was that pure coincidence or was there something in the water at the time?
No, I think it was pure luck. It was fortunate for someone in an event that had never had much exposure that we had guys like that who were getting loads of headlines and were really taking the sport to the world. So it was great for someone like me to be able to ride on the shoulders of giants.
That’s putting it very modestly! You’ve gone down as the greatest athlete of all time – but did you think the public really understood what you did?
No, I don’t think so. They appreciated that I worked hard and gave 101%, but in Britain we’ve never had any history or tradition of the decathlon, so it was always a bit hard for people to really understand what it was.
Is their perception that he’s pretty good at all of them but not outstandingly good at any of them?
They kind of think that but they probably think what I’m really best at is winning. And people appreciate that. But I have to say that even for me to watch a decathlon, it’s not very exciting most of the time.
Objectively speaking, do you think the winner of the decathlon is the king of sport?
Of course I do! What else do you expect me to say! Actually if you can think of a bigger title, he’s that! It’s wonderful to have that kind of title, if people bestow it on you; anybody would be happy to accept it.
How does a young athlete get into the decathlon?
To be honest, from my own point of view it was through luck. My coach, Bob Mortimer, asked me if I would like to have a go. I was 16 and I said OK, but I’d only done six of the things before, but he said I’d be all right – so a few weeks later I did my first decathlon. And while I was doing my first one I thought, this is something I could be really good at. I was the second best sprinter in the country and it hadn’t occurred to me that I couldn’t become the best sprinter, but as soon as I did the decathlon it occurred to me that I could be the best decathlete.
You liked the 100 metres, you liked the long jump, but some of the throws you weren’t so keen on?
I was successful in the sprints and an easy thing to do would have been to carry on with the sprints, but all my life I always wanted to be the best at something, and after I’d done my first decathlon I thought that was the way to go.
What do you do: do you maximise your strengths, make the most of what you’re really good at and hope the rest follows? How do you balance them out?
We always worked twice as hard at the weakest because my coach and I both thought a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and if you were ever going to have a problem it would be with what you weren’t confident about or weren’t good at. So we used to throw twice as often as we would jump.
Which is all technique… a little bit boring?
It depends. When you’re gripped by the obsession, nothing could be further from the truth. You get up in the morning and all you want to do is go down the track and throw the javelin 600 times today or whatever it happens to be, do your 6×300 metres. Some people probably think it’s boring, but me, I couldn’t think of any better place to be.
But it is about technique and famously, in LA in 1984, in the discus, that was the only time it nearly went wrong, when you had two pretty bad throws…
What you have to understand is that all of us, if we’re good athletes, we train for those very days. It’s easy when everything’s going well, it’s easy to perform, that isn’t the problem. The real test comes when things aren’t going so well and the question is, can you make it happen? So for me, that particular moment was the best and the worst moment of my life; it’s what I’d been training for, 350 days a year, five or six hours a day, just for one throw.
So what did you do and what did you say to yourself when you stepped into the ring for that last throw, knowing it could make the difference between gold and something less?
There’s nothing to be said. You’ve done it tens of thousands of times in the previous ten years. You go in there and think to yourself, why would it go wrong? I didn’t think the last two went wrong, I just thought the previous 10,000 went fine. When you look back you think, man, that was really close. But at the moment, the big event, if you’re properly prepared you don’t think there can be any other outcome.
The most famous picture, Daley, is of you standing on the track at the end of the competition, your opponents lying exhausted on the track around you…
Well, the only reason I wasn’t lying down was because there was no room, I was looking for space to lie down with everyone else! But it’s a good picture, because it captures it all, the will to dominate the people you’re competing against.
You had this immense rivalry with Jürgen Hingsen for many years; he broke the world record, you broke it back, but he never beat you…
Even last January, we went on holiday together, we played table-tennis, golf, everything, and I beat him every time!
Did you psyche out your opponents? You’re on the track together for two days, looking into each other’s eyes, hanging out with each other intensively for two days – mind games?
I don’t think so. What we do is not like boxing, not like judo – you can’t really affect the other person; the only way you can affect them is by going and performing really well. So after a number of competitions they all begin to realise and think, every time he comes here he’s in great shape, he always does really well – and that kind of affects them. And that, together with me thinking I’m going really well, makes me feel good and makes them feel bad. That’s one of the reasons why I really liked the decathlon: it’s not just physical, you have to be able to control yourself and keep your emotions a bit suppressed.
Let’s talk about the equipment you used, Daley, which of course was adidas. How did you come into that relationship with the company?
In 1975, a man who was the decathlon coach in Great Britain, after I’d already done a decathlon, wrote to adidas and asked them if they would supply me with some gear. And apart from my very first ten minutes at the Olympic Village in 1976 in Montreal, the moment I received my first box of adidas equipment was probably the greatest in my athletics career. When you’re a poor working-class lad who can’t afford any clothes and shoes, and you get a box full of free shoes, it’s the greatest day in your life. They were high jump shoes and long jump, and the rest. It would have taken a year to get some money for the spikes. So it was great to have all the things I’d always wanted, and it also meant that somebody was taking me seriously.
How many different pairs of shoes do you need for a decathlon?
Usually, when you go to a competition you take seven or eight pairs – some of them you can use for other things, but generally seven or eight pairs. You need a different pair for shot and javelin and discus, but you could probably use the same ones for 100 and 400 metres and 110 hurdles. Before adidas came along, I’d only been working with two pairs.
Off you went to Montreal and finished 18th and by all accounts badgered Bruce Jenner, the eventual winner, with any number of questions…
I was 17 or 18 years old, I was in the greatest arena in the world, and I had access to everyone who’s there, everyone was friendly and really nice, and so I felt obliged to ask questions and be a sponge and learn about what I was doing. They already had all the experience and if someone else has a good answer to a question, there’s no point in me trying to reinvent the wheel. I asked him about everything – training, competition…
Mine were better than his!
In 1976, Adi Dassler, the founder of adidas, was still alive – did you ever meet him?
Yes, I met him once in Herzogenaurach. He was quite a jolly old fellow. He was interested in sport; obviously I was very young, but he was interested in asking questions and he wanted to know that the shoes fitted. I was too shy… He was saying, how are these, do they work? I wasn’t going to say no, when he was giving me free shoes! They were the best shoes in the world!
There’s a picture from 1984 of the adidas shoes you wore in LA, or one of them, and they seem to have taken a bit of a beating; what was going on there?
Oh, a lot of power going through, they weren’t used to that sort of action. Also, I had a very Scottish Presbyterian upbringing and my mum was always telling me you ain’t changing anything until the last one’s been worn out, and I never got to wear new ones until the last ones were worn out, that’s why!
How about adidas clothing, Daley: right now there’s a retro line…
I’ve got some! You know what: we make great clothing, just as it was 30 years ago. There are some great companies out there but nobody makes the range of stuff we do, and nobody does it as well as we do. I think a lot of stuff is coming back into demand and if it’s what the kids want, then it’s fine.
It might be, though, that they’ve never even heard of Daley Thompson…
Do you know what? That’s how it should be, they should have their own heroes. There’s nothing wrong with that. Life moves on, and if there’s someone new in my place or in somebody else’s place, that’s what we love about sport: it’s not the same landscape as it was ten or twenty years ago, and we would be sad if it was.
adidas today: three words to describe the brand?
Two words: going forward. I think adidas are much better placed to serve the sports world; the company’s got an unrivalled understanding of what people need in order to perform well. I think adidas have learnt a lot from the Nikes of this world and for that they’re a better company, they needed to go through whatever they’ve gone through in the last 15 or 20 years to be where they are today. I think that they’re getting back to the sports business.
For ten years you won everything there was to win: two Olympic golds, world championships, European Championships, Commonwealth Games – did you feel unbeatable?
No, I don’t think I did. That’s why I trained 350 days a year, because I knew that Jürgen and another couple of guys were very close; so I owed it to myself and to them to be sure I was always well prepared. What I did think was, if I trained hard enough they would find it very difficult to beat me.
When you finally did lose, at the 1987 World Championships, how did you feel?
I felt OK. Again, at some point most of us understand that the best bloke wins and maybe it’s not your today; as you get older you understand that you can only do your best and the results are just as the results turn out to be.
In what frame of mind did you go to Seoul for the Olympics in 1988?
Good, really good; I’d been hurt in 87 and thought that had just been a one-off, but unfortunately a few days before Seoul I pulled an adductor, which didn’t help matters.
What did you do immediately after your active career?
Not a lot. I hadn’t really prepared for it. I got married and we had a couple of kids, but I’d just spent 15 or 16 years concentrating on going to the track every day and I needed three or four years when I wasn’t trying to do anything in particular. So I messed around, played a bit of football for Mansfield Town, then a little bit of coaching with Luton Town and Wimbledon; I also coached Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisovic, and that was fun; in 2000, I coached the Olympic decathlon champion, Erki Nool, so that was another fun couple of years. But I was looking for a new direction. One of the things you have to be careful about when you’ve been obsessed about something is that if you’re going to be obsessed about the next thing, it has to be the right thing. But I never really found anything to become obsessed about. As much fun as it is, I’m much more a do-it person than a talk-about-it sort of person.
But you do a lot of talking about it now…
You mean the motivational talking I do? Yes, I try to help people to find their own way to do it, because I think everyone’s got a different way, and it’s just a matter of capturing that way of getting the best out of themselves. Mainly I just talk about how most things are possible, provided you’re realistic, and how most people can do most of the things they set out to do.
Looking forward to 2012, Daley?
I am so looking forward to it! It’s going to be the best Olympics ever. You heard it from me first!
Beijing did an unbelievable job; we couldn’t have an Olympics as big as that, but I think ours is going to be better because it’s going to be more intimate, the people are going to get more involved, and hopefully every town and village will have big screens and they’ll be out there watching it, night and day. It’ll be different, but I definitely think it will be better.
You’ll be 54 in 2012 …
It doesn’t seem all that much, does it! I’ve been thinking about it, I haven’t been sleeping!