British decathlon hopeful Daley Thompson entered the May 1980 Götzis international championship in Austria merely as a warm-up and fine-tuning for the Summer Games in Moscow. Instead, the then 21-year-old track star shattered the world record in the 10 demanding events, racking up a massive 8,622 points. (No one has attained 9,000.) When he arrived home in London, a telegram from the U.S. was waiting:
“CONGRATULATIONS. EVER SINCE THE DAY I MET YOU IN MONTREAL, I KNEW YOU HAD THE RIGHT ATTITUDE TO BE THE BEST IN THE WORLD. I KNOW YOU’LL WEAR THE CROWN WELL. MY WHEATIES CONTRACT IS UP IN A YEAR—I’LL GIVE THEM YOUR NAME. 9,000 OR BUST.
FORMER WORLD RECORD HOLDER, BRUCE JENNER”
It was a prophetic observation. Three months later the 6’1″, 190-pound Thompson breezed to a gold medal in Moscow and he has not lost since. This week he begins his bid to become the second man in history to win two gold medals in the decathlon—a feat notched only by American Bob Mathias in 1948 and 1952. Thompson’s strongest competition will come from world record holder Jürgen Hingsen, a 6’7″, 225-pound West German who has lost to him in their last eight head-to-head matches.
Thompson’s climb to supremacy, like that of other decathletes, has been grueling. The men train brutally hard for 10 different events spanning two days. The first half of the competition includes the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump and the 400 meters. Day two puts contenders through high hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin throw and the 1500-meter run.
Since his late teens, Thompson has trained at running, throwing and jumping seven hours a day, seven days a week. “I like the life I lead,” he says in a Cockney twang. “For me, it’s perfect. I answer to nobody but myself.”
That self-absorbed attitude has made the irreverent track star, now 26, a target of the British press, which has branded him “cocky,” and “unpredictable.” Thompson has refused to grant interviews to journalists ignorant of his sport and will not discuss his personal life. Fleet Street scored one minor victory last fall when photographers caught Thompson, a ladies’ man, hurdling the backyard fence of the London home of dishy gymnasium owner Jane Birbeck on his way to a waiting taxi. He upset Britons in 1982 by declining to carry the Union Jack in the opening ceremonies at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia. Explains Thompson: “It can be a 4¼ hour stand-up ordeal in 90-degree weather, and I had the decathlon the next day.”
Thompson’s headstrong nature dates to his childhood. He was born in the racially mixed, tough Notting Hill Gate section of London. His mother, Lydia, who is white, had married Frank Thompson, a handsome Nigerian from the Ibo tribe who had spent most of his life in England. Frank gave his son the African name Ayodele (meaning “Joy Enters the House”), which was shortened to “Dele” and pronounced Daley.
Thompson’s parents divorced when he was 8. Because of his hyperactive, aggressive nature, they shipped him off to an English boarding school for “difficult” children. There Daley flourished, excelling at soccer and track-and-field. Later at a high school outside London, coach Bruce Longden steered him toward the decathlon.
In 1979 his mother insisted that he get a job or move out. (His father died when he was 12.) Determined to pursue athletics, he moved in with Doreen Rayment, his mother’s best friend. She has looked after him since he entered his first decathlon at 16 at Cwmbran, Wales, and beat the best adult contenders by 200 points.
Thompson already has his sights set on the 1988 Olympic Games. As he notes with characteristic tunnel vision in his biography (by New York writer Skip Rozin), “Competition is my life—winning is my only goal. Everything I do is directed toward that end, and I will never permit anything to jeopardize it.”