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UK Athletics

don thompson

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don Thompson

Full Name: Donald James Thompson

Date of Birth: 20 January 1933.

Died: October 4, 2006

Born: Hillingdon, London;.

Club: Metropolitan Walking Club.

Advised: Harold Whitlock

Career summary


Hot Stuff

Don Thompson will always be remembered for the way he prepared for the Olympic Games in 1960 where he won the 50km walk. What was it about heat? He was a fire insurance clerk in the day and after work, he would go into his bathroom, increase the temperature to stifling levels and just stay in there sweating. It was his way of acclimatising for the athletics challenge which lie ahead - and how it worked. Thirty-one years later, at the age of 58, he was still competing and by doing so he became Britain’s oldest international.

How It Started

An athlete who made history for a number of reasons, Thompson never expected to achieve success as a walker. He had begun his career by running the 880y and javelin, but he was affected by a bad Achilles tendon injury. In 1951, he took up walking and within three years he had won his first Middlesex title. Always highly proficient at the longest distances, he was second that year in the London-to-Brighton walk, a race he was to win a record eight times successively between 1955 and 1962, setting a record time for the 86km course of 7:35:12. in 1957 and he impressed when he won at 100km in Milan in 1955.

His first British records came at 25 miles and 4 hours in 1955 and he improved the best time for 50km five times from 4:24:39 in 1956 to 4:09:15 in 1961. The Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956 arrived and it was here, where he suffered misfortune by not finishing, that the seeds of Rome and gold medal glory were first planted. In this modern age of the sport, Britain rarely enters a walker for any of the major championships but they had established a successful record at the event, with Tommy Green winning the first Olympic 50km gold medal in St Louis in 1932 and Harold Whitlock succeeding him in Berlin in 1936. In Melbourne, Thompson ended the race in hospital with dehydration after collapsing. The temperatures were 90 degrees and from fifth position, he failed to finish an event for the first time. When Rome arrived, he was determined to have prepared.


Mighty Mouse

While Thompson would train at 4am to ensure he would still make it to work on time, it was his amazing programme when he returned which became the stuff of Olympic folklore. If you live in Kent, how do replicate an afternoon at Rome where temperatures could be soaring? With heaters and boiling water, he would make his bathroom into a steam room, increasing the temperatures towards 100 degrees. He revealed that he put a stove into the bath to boost the humidity and in an interview he said: “It wasn't until several years later that I realised I wasn't feeling dizzy because of the heat; it was carbon monoxide from the stove." His hours of adapting paid off and turned him into a national hero when he would gold in conditions...of 80 degrees. He was in front by halfway after the two previous races leaders had been disqualified and from here on in Thompson was not going to be beaten, despite the growing presence of Sweden’s John Ljunggren, who had won gold at the Olympic Games in London in 1948. But the Swedish walker was 40 now, and though the two men could hardly be separated with 5km to go, Thompson took control and won with an Olympic record of 4:25:30.0, a victory by 17 seconds from Ljunggren, with Italy’s Abdon Pamich third in 4:27:55.4. With his triumph, he became only the second British athletics to win a post-war Olympic gold medal after Chris Brasher’s victory in the 3000m steeplechase in Melbourne. At 5ft, 5ins, Thompson was dubbed Il Topolino - Mighty Mouse - by the Italians, a compliment for a victory based on such precise preparation.


Far From Finished

Thompson won a record eight national titles at 50km walk also and he was third at the European Championships in Belgrade in 1962. At his third Olympic Games in Rome, he was 110th in 1964. But throughout he would always maintain his fitness and he became Britain’s oldest full international when he competed in the 200km walk at Bazencourt, France, at 58 years 89 days in 1991. He took up marathon running too and had a best of 2:51. Thompson was awarded the MBE in 1970, but he died of a brain aneurysm in October 2006, still ranked 18th on the UK all-time 50km list almost 46 years after his Olympic glory.


International Championships

1956: dnf 50kmW Olympics

1958: 5th 50kmW Europeans

1960: 1st 50kmW Olympics

1961: 2nd 50kmW Lugano Trophy

1962: 3rd 50kmW Europeans

1964: 10th 50kmW Olympics

1965: 4th 50kmW Lugano Trophy

1966: 9th 50kmW Europeans

1967: 6th 50kmW Lugano Trophy

UK Internationals: 10 (1956-67)

National Championships

Won RWA 20 miles walk 1961, 50km walk 1956-62, 1966.

Personal bests

20kmW 1:34:45 (1961), 50kmW 4:12:59 (1959), 4:09:15 uncertain distance (1961); Track bests (all in 1960): 2M 14:48, 7M 53:19, 20M 2:41:43.8, 25M 3:36:37.4, 30M 4:08:11.6, 50km 4:17:29.8