Daley Thompson on how his journey to Olympic gold started in Haywards Heath

Daley Thompson (Photo by Simon Hofmann/Getty Images For Laureus)

Daley Thompson (Photo by Simon Hofmann/Getty Images For Laureus) - Credit: Getty Images For Laureus

Daley Thompson’s journey to four world records and Olympic gold in the decathlon began in Haywards Heath

British track and field has thrown up some exceptional athletes in its history, from Sebastian Coe to Paula Radcliffe, Mo Farah to Katharine Merry. These individuals reigned supreme on the world stage and are rightly revered as some of the greatest athletes to have worn Team GB’s colour.

However, there’s surely an argument to be made that the decathlon – with its ten-strong list of events requiring skill in everything from sprinting to shot-put, and the stamina to compete over two consecutive days – is somewhat unique.

Therefore, Daley Thompson’s four world records in the event stand apart even in the pantheon of athletic greats.

“It would have been a lot easier to be a sprinter, because they only do seven or eight hours of training a week, whereas we used to do seven or eight hours, four or five events, a day,” the 61-year-old laughs. “So there were a couple of times where you think it would be easier to just be a sprinter or something!”

Daley’s never one to avoid speaking his mind. It might have landed him in hot water in the past, but today’s he is living up to a more enthusiastic reputation befitting of his work in motivational speaking, especially when it comes to espousing the need for people to stay fit and healthy in the modern age.

“Well, it’s not too sporting but it’s a healthy and fairly fit one,” he says of his own life. “Little and often is my motto for exercise. I try and do at least 15 minutes, six times a week. Having said that, I sometimes do 15 minutes three or four times a day. Whenever I have some time basically.

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“You only have to look at the newspaper headlines about how overweight we are, and how many mental health problems there are these days, and one of the great things to alleviate both those problems is exercise.”

Now in his 60s, even someone with the athletic pedigree of Daley is beginning to slow.

“I don’t have the same flexibility,” he admits “I’m not getting up quite as fast as I used to out of chair, so it’s really important to keep doing exercise.” Keeping active into the autumn of your years may be one thing, but Daley is quick to point out the importance of starting on your fitness journey young.

In Daley’s case, this journey started out in Sussex as part of the Haywards Heath Harriers. Still going strong some half-a-century since he was a part of the group, the mere mention of the Harriers brings a little pep to Daley’s voice.

“Haywards Heath Harriers – yep, that’s the one!” he smiles. “I used to be looked after by Phil Nash and Tim French, who was a big tall bearded bloke as I remember from 50 years ago!”

The chance to get interested in sport and fitness under the watchful eye of Tim and Phil, the pair who oversaw the Harriers’ transformation from ad hoc running club to an Amateur Athletics Association-accredited venture during the mid-to-late 1960s, still inspires Daley today in his own post-retirement philanthropy.

A diligent member of groups such as the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, Daley is forever grateful for the efforts of men like Tim, Phil, and the thousands of emulators who give up their free time for clubs like the Harriers to coach potential future world record holders.

“For me, it is one of the great things that happened to me,” he says of him humble start in Haywards Heath.

“I think one of the great things about sport in this country is the fact that it is run by part-time people who are just volunteering, and while they might not technically be the best in the world, they are full of enthusiasm. So that experience was one of the things that pointed me in the right direction.

“Nowadays, for me it’s a personal thing, I don’t think people should be obliged to do it if it’s not the way you’re inclined. Kids find you out if you’re not being genuine about it. I like the fact that everything Laureus does is based around sport, and 90 per cent is based around kids and trying to use sport to make a little social change, that really appeals to me.”

Of course, Daley’s been open about the more troubling aspects of his own upbringing, including the murder of his father, and his time spent at Farley Close, a Sussex boarding school once described by Daley as “a place for troubled children”.

Is sport as much a way out for kid in similar situations today as academia?

“I think it does make as much of a difference as being academic,” he nods. “Everybody isn’t academic in the first place, but secondly being healthy – and it isn’t really just about sport necessarily – but I think being healthy and a bit fitter is something that everybody can enjoy. And as you get older you start to rely on it much more than you do when you’re young. Everybody owes it to themselves; you don’t have to be the fittest person in the world, but it’s nice when you’re older to be able to run around with your kids and your grandkids.”

Daley’s five grandkids, he says, remain the thing he’s most proud of: “The sport stuff is just your job isn’t it?” He’s certainly not one for dwelling nostalgically on his legacy as a decathlete, saying of the recent new world record set by France’s Kevin Mayer, “great to see the event getting some headlines and moving on”.

Even so, occasional controversies aside, Daley has long been termed Britain’s greatest all-round athlete by his contemporaries. Could he have seen that future when he first pitched up to take part in some sport with Hayward Heath Harriers?

“You don’t think of it like that when you’re a young kid,” he defers. “It’s just a nice place to go where likeminded people are doing things that you like doing, so it’s really important because it gave me a kick start.

“If it had been a bad environment, I might never have wanted to play the game again!”


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