Track Stats - Don Thompson

Keeping right on to the end of the road:
fond memories of Don Thompson

Don Thompson was one of the outstanding race-walkers in the World and won the Olympic 50 kilometres in 1960. Remembered by Bob Phillips. Published in “Track Stats” November 2009

Was it my imagination or did we really sing “Keep Right On To The End Of The Road” as Don Thompson came into the Olympic Stadium in Rome in 1960 to win the gold medal in the 50 kilometres walk? I don’t recall any other words of the song now except the next repetitive line – “Keep Right On To The End” – and so I’m sure I knew no more then. Even so, it makes a good story, and it might well figure in the script if anyone was ever to make a sort of “Chariots Of Fire” film about the life of “The Mighty Mouse”, or “The Little Mouse”, as Bryan Hawkins describes him in this issue of “Track Stats”.

I doubt that it will happen – Don, with his owlish spectacles, floppy cap, baggy white vest and shorts, grey socks, clumping leather shoes and wiggling hips, was not the obvious hero of any silver-screen biopic. Of course, Bryan Hawkins’s astonishingly varied life would also make a highly entertaining book, and another splendid film perhaps in the Ealing Studios tradition, but that is most unlikely to come about, either – more’s the pity. I seem to remember that marvellous comedian, Norman Wisdom, demonstrating a capable race-walking gait in one of his slapstick adventures, and he later took part in rather more serious walking events in the Isle of Man.

Looking back to those Rome Games, there’s no doubt, though, that Don was a saviour for us patient British supporters who had been witness to disaster after disaster as the likes of Gordon Pirie, Arthur Rowe and Mary Rand all wilted under the broiling Italian sun, and there was a special dramatic twist to this long-awaited success. Electronic information for spectators in those days was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is now (if there was any at all, that is), but there had been the occasional announcement about the progress of the walkers out on the roads, and the last we had heard was that Don was ahead with a few kilometres to go but only by one second from a Swede.

So we craned our necks and held our breaths until at last the diminutive white-clad figure appeared out of the gloom of the tunnel and strode purposefully into the sunlight and round the track to the finishing-line. The Italian spectators – whose idol was their elegantly-clad and sprucely-groomed 200 metres winner, Livio Berruti, – were less than ecstatic in their reception for the Briton, clearly bemused that such an unassuming little man could also win a gold medal. What they didn’t know – and nor did we feverishly excited Britons, for that matter – was that for many months before the Games the studious Thompson had supplemented his walk-training by exercising in his steam-filled bathroom to simulate the weather conditions that he knew he would encounter in Rome.

Race-walking then was, of course, rather different to what it is now. World standards in every athletics event have improved substantially in the last 50 years or so – but the winning times for the 50 kilometres walk in Rome in 1960 and at the World Championships in Berlin this year prove the point about the transformation of the walking discipline: Thompson 4hr 25min 30sec; Sergey Kirdyapkin, of Russia, 3hr 38min 35sec. Even the women’s World record is now almost 15 minutes faster than the late Don achieved in winning his gold. It’s probably fair to say that with the change in rules regarding the method of progression there really should be no comparison at all. Maybe it is no longer accurate to even describe the event as a mere “walk”. Power walk, perhaps?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am a fervent supporter of race-walking, as regular coverage of the discipline in “Track Stats” confirms, and an unqualified admirer of the immense amount of technical skill and concentration required. No finer athlete has existed in any event in recent years, I suggest, than the multi-champion from Poland, Robert Korzeniowski, and I have had the privilege of being able to see in action all the leading walkers on numerous occasions at the Olympic Games, World and European Championships and Commonwealth Games. If I had never been a totally committed walking fan before, then that experience changed my view – and for reasons other than the obviously high level of athleticism being demonstrated by its practitioners.

My experience with the media was that very few – very, very few ... well, actually none – of the British newspaper and radio journalists took the slightest interest in the walks. Certainly, none of them were ever to be seen out on the course, as I invariably was, where you can, figuratively speaking, smell the greasepaint and revel in the roar of the crowd. Not only that, but a number amongst the scribes lost no opportunity to decry the efforts of the walkers. Being the sort of committed lifetime athletics “nut” who loves the sport for the sport itself, and is perfectly happy to merely see the best athlete win, regardless of nationality (I know, no need to tell me, it’s a quaintly old-fashioned idea, but I make no apology for it), I found myself frequently defending the walks against a barrage of derision. There was plenty of evidence to support my forlorn stand.

For example, if you look at the results for the 2008 Olympic Games you will find that in the walking events there were 51 competitors in the men’s 20 kilometres, 59 in the men’s 50 kilometres and 48 in the women’s 20 kilometres – including such countries as Colombia, Costa Rice, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Moldova, Serbia and Tunisia which were scarcely represented in any other athletics event. Jefferson Pérez, 2nd in the Beijing 20 kilometres (and World champion in both 2005 and 2007 and Olympic champion in 1996), is a national hero in Ecuador, where they, no doubt, regard the triple jump or the steeplechase as rather quaint but are far too polite to say so.

Thompson, Vickers, Matthews, Nihill – the golden dynasty

The other argument to offer to any British detractors of race-walking is that, of course, their attitude would be very different if the likes of Don Thompson, Stan Vickers, Ken Matthews or Paul Nihill – all of them major Championship medallists in the 1950s and 1960s – were still active. During those decades the most I saw of these walkers was in the Inter-Counties’ or AAA Championships at the White City, where the seven miles track event was usually put on at lunchtime in the expectation, even by our national administrators, that many spectators would seek a cup of tea and a sandwich instead. Those, like me, who steadfastly refused to miss a single event were invariably rewarded with a splendid display of the heel-and-toe art.

In that same year of 1960 that witnessed Don Thompson’s Olympic triumph Matthews had become the first man to beat 50 minutes in the AAA seven miles, breaking a 10-year-old record held by the peerless Roland Hardy, who had been scandalously disqualified at the 1950 European Championships after finishing a clear 1st in the 10 kilometres event. In 1964 Matthews improved to 48:23.0 and then famously won gold in the Tokyo Olympic 20 kilometres – though still regarded by the press as being rather in the shadow of his more glamorous title-winning team-mates (Lynn Davies, Ann Packer, Mary Rand).

More than 30 years later I met up with Matthews for the first time in rather different competitive circumstances, and even beat him on one occasion. After a lifetime of exceedingly modest personal athletic endeavour, culminating in a dozen or so marathons, I turned to cycle time-trialling as the only outlet with which my ailing knees could cope, and on many Tuesday and Thursday evenings along the Wrexham bye-pass I would found myself lining up alongside Matthews himself, now an enthusiastic racing-cyclist, and many other local club-men from North Wales and the Wirral for open 10-mile time-trials. Mostly he was a minute or so faster than me, but I did edge him on one occasion. He was in good company among my rare “victims” – I finished ahead of Don Thompson and Chris Brasher in the first London Marathon … and on two wheels even 15 seconds in front of Chris Boardman in one of those Wrexham 10s, though I will grudgingly admit that he had started seven minutes behind!

The first athletics club to which I had belonged was Watford Harriers in the late 1950s, and it was there that I’d become aware of race-walking at first hand. A stalwart supporter of it then – and still so now, half-a-century later – was Harvey Jaquest, and he was responsible for one of the most startling transformations in the fortunes of a young athlete that I have ever encountered. A gawky teenage lad named Ian Brooks, who was possessed of immense enthusiasm but scarcely a modicum of talent for cross-country running, was persuaded by Harvey to join him in some walk training … and in 1971 Ian competed for Great Britain against West Germany in a 35 kilometres event! Ian now lives in the USA and works for the New York Road Runners’ Club, providing race commentary for events throughout the country.

It’s appropriate to note that in 1971 Britain had 27 men faster than 1hr 39min for the 20 kilometres walk (led by Nihill, Phil Embleton and Ron Wallwork, with Ian 14th at 1:35:12 and Colin Young 19th at 1:35:43), and 29 men faster than 4hr 56min for the 50 kilometres walk. In 2008 the respective totals were six and four. Standards in British athletics have slid catastrophically in most events in recent years, but the almost complete collapse of race-walking is as sad a spectacle as any. It is some small consolation that one aspect of British race-walking survives to impress the foreigners: in a recent conversation I had with the unassuming European 50 kilometres walk champion and World silver-medallist, Yohann Diniz, he enthused about the course used in Leamington Spa for the European Cup 20 kilometres event which he won in 2007.

There is, though, one Briton who still kept “right on to the end of the road” for very many years. In 2007 Tim Berrett competed in a then record ninth World Championships, finishing a respectable 19th in the 50 kilometres event, having first come to prominence as Britain’s best junior walker in 1984, and at the age of 42 he had still proved himself sprightly enough to have won the Portugese national 50 kilometres as a guest the previous March in 3:55:08. As it happens, Tim (born in Tunbridge Wells) has long been a Canadian citizen and has represented that country ever since 1990. I don’t imagine he has ever had cause to wonder about the unmistakeably English voice crying out from the roadside, “Come on, Tim”, in his ear at World, Olympic and Commonwealth races year after year, but if he has, and he happens to read these words, he might find it gratifying to learn that, to me at least, he kept the Don Thompson tradition alive.

Don Thompson MBE won the annual London-to-Brighton walk on a record eight occasions, setting a best time for the 86km course of 7:35:12 in 1957. He was also national 50km champion eight times and set five British records at the distance. In 1991 he became the oldest athlete to be selected for an official Great Britain team when he competed in a 200km event in France at the age of 58. He died on 4 October 2006 aged 73.