Evening Standard

Listen up: these London pupils were eager to hear Daley Thompson's message in his work with the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

You would not expect Daley Thompson to advise anyone to stay away from the London Games but he tells me he did exactly that to the doorman at the Dorchester hotel.

“He told me he’s going to watch Greco-Roman wrestling. And I said to him, ‘I wouldn’t.'”

The doorman’s response finally convinced Britain’s double Olympic decathlon champion that London 2012 will be special.

“He told me, ‘I just want to be part of it.’ It made me realise there are a lot of people who want to be part of the Games. Now, when I’m stopped by people, I tell them that even if they haven’t got a ticket, they should go to the live sites. I meet kids all the time and when they ask what it will be like I just say, ‘Have your parents take you down to the Olympic Park, watch it on the big screens, try and sample some of the atmosphere because that’s what the Olympics is about.'”

Thompson accepts that not everything about the Games will win favour: the Olympic lanes, which he is entitled to use as an ambassador for London 2012, have drawn criticism as has the £9.3billion budget at a time when the country is in economic crisis.

But the 53-year-old wants people to look at the big picture and he hopes the country shows the same spirit as when the Games were here in 1908 – London stepped in after scheduled hosts Rome had to pull out because of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius – and in the first post-War Games of 1948.

“It’s not about the money, it’s about showing people who we are, what we’re about and maybe it’s about saving the Games all over again, like it was the other times the Games came to London. People need to throw ­themselves into the Games and I think they will.”

But, for all the eagerness with which he beats the 2012 drum, Thompson makes a surprising admission when I ask him about his favourite Olympic moment: “I’m not sure I’ve got any.”

In Los Angeles in 1984, winning his second gold, Thompson stamped himself as Britain’s most irreverent Olympian. He whistled during the national anthem and on his lap of honour wore a T-shirt with the message, ‘Is The World’s 2nd Greatest Athlete Gay?’ a supposed reference to Carl Lewis’s sexuality.

Now all he can recall is: “Los Angeles was great fun because it was the polar opposite of Moscow in 1980. It was sunny and bright, lots of colours around, whereas Moscow was dark and oppressive. People were having fun in LA but it was a job to be done. I don’t remember a lot of specific detail of it because I was too busy doing it.”

This self-absorption was vividly illustrated in January when Thompson accompanied sprinter Alan Wells to the scene of their triumphs in Moscow: Thompson’s first gold and Wells’s gold in the 100metres.

“Walking around the stadium, I couldn’t believe how much detail Alan remembered: the colour of the seats, what they were made of, what people were sitting where, whether they were from the army. He could remember as if it was yesterday. I didn’t remember a single thing. I had no idea I’d even been there because I focus on my stuff and get on with it.

“It was one of my mechanisms for being able to cope. When you’re walking into the stadium, you just say to yourself the 100m is the same anywhere, the shot put is the same weight anywhere.”

That attitude helped Thompson remain undefeated for seven years during the 1980s – a feat which he says is his proudest achievement.

And of all those victories, one he does remember vividly came at the ­European Championships in 1986 in Stuttgart. The reason goes to the heart of what made Thompson a great champion. “All my biggest rivals were ­Germans [including Jurgen Hingsen, the West German world record holder]. To go to Germany and have 80,000 people screaming for their athletes and after every event silence them – it doesn’t get much better than that.

“What used to drive me was the fact that I wanted to be better than everybody at something. One of my best qualities is that I used whatever other people found to be an adverse thing to be a positive thing for myself.”

This competitive spirit was nourished despite the fact that, as a 17-year-old, Thompson made his Olympic debut in the 1976 Montreal Games with Britain at its nadir in athletics.

“We were a bit of a laughing stock, and got only one athletics bronze medal from Brendan Foster [in the 10,000m],” says Thompson. “All our guys were scared s**tless of anybody from the Eastern Bloc. Before any competition had even started, our guys had lost and I couldn’t understand it. But I was a new breed and our belief was we can beat anybody.”

Four years later, that new breed had emerged: Wells, Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram, Tessa Sanderson, Fatima Whitbread. Thompson says: “It was unreal, now the East Germans feared us.”

He did not let East Germany’s notorious use of performance-enhancing drugs worry him. However, the memory of competing against doped athletes explains why he backs the British Olympic Association’s controversial policy of never allowing a drugs cheat to compete in the Games again.

They are set to go to the Court of ­Arbitration for Sport to defend their stance after the World Anti-Doping Agency announced last month it broke their rules.

Thompson hopes the BOA win and says: “If occasionally an innocent person hangs, then that’s the way it is. When people on the outside feel that cheating is what people on the inside are doing, then they won’t let their children play and our sport dies. That is why we need to take strong action.”

His desire for such action has grown all the stronger because he is worried that present day children are being tempted away from competitive sport.

Thompson, a member of the Laureus World Sports Academy, is trying to help youngsters through his work with the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and says: “Kids have been let down by adults – we’ve tried to give them too much, we’ve tried not to impose discipline. We’ve tried to make their lives easier and, in doing so, we’ve taken something away from them. Kids like boundaries, they also like to be pushed, need to learn what failure is all about, need guidance.

“Some have got it too easy. My son, who is 10, can go on his PlayStation and, in an hour’s time, he can be the world rally champion.

“I was never brought up like that. I had a strict Scottish mother who thought that you do your stuff and if you’re diligent and work hard then perhaps you will be rewarded, nothing is guaranteed.

“From an early age I understood that. I was caned a few times. The trouble with all this political correctness, the Bill of Human Rights and all that kind of stuff is that, in protecting a small group, it opens up a whole other can of worms.”

Another concern for Thompson is that sports are not making the most of the 2012 opportunity to change what he sees as this country’s “fixation with football”.

“What it might do for three or four weeks is to open people’s eyes to other stuff,” he says. “If those sports are smart enough, they will cast their nets and catch a whole bunch of kids. These other sports need to get out there and drag the kids in. This is one lesson the others sports haven’t learned. Rugby hasn’t and neither has cricket.”

As he says this you sense that, for all the glow he feels about 2012, he fears it will not be the catalyst for change he wants it to be.


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