Francis Daley Thompson, England's 20-year-old decathlete, sat back in his stadium seat and considered one unanticipated scourge of holding the British Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Alberta. "U.S. college recruiters," he said uneasily, glancing over his shoulder at rows of glittering, covetous eyes. "They all say, 'We have a big football stadium,' as if that answers all my questions. 'But I don't play football,' I say, and they say they know, but if they have football they have everything else I could possibly want. Or if they don't, they'll get it."
Thompson, son of a Nigerian father and an English mother, increased the interest of the flock of vultures when he won the Commonwealth decathlon last week with 8,467 points, 150 shy of Bruce Jenner's world-record 8,617. He is now history's third-best performer. More impressive than the score were his glaring flaws and compensatory brilliances, and the unshielded view he offered of his youthful psyche—all evidence of a great raw talent.
Perhaps that talent is best measured against Jenner's record, set in the Montreal Olympics. In the opening 100-meter dash, the thick-legged Thompson sprinted to a personal best of 10.50. Jenner had done 10.94 at Montreal. In the long jump, a strong 11.2-mph wind helped Thompson reach 26'7¼", almost three feet beyond Jenner's 23'8¼". The allowable wind in a decathlon is 8.9 mph, so Thompson's mark gets an asterisk, as does his 8,467.
Thompson put the shot 47'4¼", Jenner 50'4¼". Jenner high-jumped 6'8". Thompson began shakily, barely scraping over 6'2"; then, alternating splendid jumps with clunkers, he climbed to 6'8". He cleared that on his second try and missed twice at 6'9½", again looking sluggish. "I tend to forget what it is I'm doing out there," he said. But the crowd brought him to his senses and he made the height on his last chance, almost knocking the bar off when he raised his fist in celebration.
August 20, 1978
In the 400, the first day's final event, the wind appeared ready to take back what it had given in the long jump. A few minutes earlier runners in the open 400 had all finished about a second and a half slower than their bests, the result of plowing the first 200 meters into a 20-mph blast. Thompson started carefully, then hunched into the wind, passing the 200 in a modest 23.5. On the last turn, as the opposition began to tire, he alone held his form and moved away, finishing in 47.85. Jenner had done 47.51 in Montreal without an adverse wind. After the first day, Thompson's 4,550 points put him 253 ahead of Jenner's pace. "I am surprised," said Thompson, who didn't seem so at all. "But I'm still a first-day performer, a sprinter-jumper. Give me time and I'll be a decathlete."
It was not that Thompson came apart on the second day, simply that his inexperience in events requiring polished technique kept him from a world record. In the high hurdles he hit the first barrier, went off balance and nicked eight of the next nine, finishing in 14.92. "I was ready for 14.6," he said. "I was thinking about winning. I should have been thinking about hurdling." Jenner had done 14.84. In the discus, where Jenner had thrown 164'2", Thompson managed 136'9".
"Horrible, wasn't it?" he said. "It is an event that takes years to develop." But then Thompson grants himself a long and rich career, saying, "I don't expect to peak until I'm 30—in 1988."
In the pole vault Jenner had cleared 15'9"; Thompson also did 15'9" despite an approach run filled with veers and gallops. "It's like he's jousting," said an observer. "Or maybe there are a couple of streams running across his practice runway at home and he's used to jumping them." It seemed Thompson could make 17 feet if he used a stiffer pole, a faster run... "and a bit more courage," as he said. "I had a broken wrist in December, and this is only the third time I've vaulted this year."
In the javelin, another event of delicate technique, Jenner had thrown 224'9" at Montreal. Thompson got a personal best, but it was only 185'8½". That left him needing 4:05.8 in the 1,500 to break Jenner's record. His previous best was 4:20.2. On the starting line he all but conceded. "I couldn't do it," he said, "and an all-out effort would only put me close. That would be worse than missing by a lot." So Thompson ran within himself, with a jolting, pigeon-toed stride, to 4:25.78. He finished strongly, employing Jenner's arms-up gesture of triumph, then led his weary competitors on a victory lap. Against their haggard faces, his was still boyish, still eager.
Later, sitting in the stands before the start of the 5,000 meters, Thompson said, "There's not much Jenner can beat me in now. Just the discus and the javelin."
Thompson escaped London's tough Notting Hill Gate area—where he ate very few Wheaties—into a private boarding school, Farney Close, and now lives in Sussex, south of London. His cheeky guarantees of greatness are delivered with statistics. He has broken the world junior record each year for the last two and is by far the youngest decathlete ever to attain 8,400 points.
"It's been great," Thompson said of Edmonton's reaction to his performance. "Free lunches, free cab rides. I don't bother to carry any money anymore. I hope no one breaks the world record in the 5,000."
"Well, he'd be the star of the Games, wouldn't he?"
Thompson had to do as the star, though, because there was only one world record set during the 10-day competition—Australian swimmer Tracey Wickham's 8:24.62 in the women's 800-meter freestyle. Edmonton did have a pair of local stars to cherish, however. Breaststroker Graham Smith, a 20-year-old business major at the University of California, won a record six gold medals (the 100 and 200 breaststroke, 200 and 400 individual medleys and legs on the 400 freestyle and 400 medley relays) while swimming in a pool named for his late father, Dr. Don Smith. And Diane Jones Konihowski won four of the pentathlon's five events and achieved the best score in the world this year, 4,768 points.
Like Thompson, Konihowski appears capable of a world record. She was sixth in the Montreal Olympics, but since the 200-meter dash has been replaced by the 800 in pentathlons, she has no weak event. Konihowski bathed in glory all week, as she was the runner who carried the ceremonial silver-and-gold baton into the stadium during the opening ceremonies—delivering it to the Queen—and then danced to all hours with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. She spoke with the Queen again upon receiving her medal.
"What did she say to you?" she was asked.
"She really just smiles a lot," said Konihowski.
The best that Donald Quarrie, the Olympic 200-meter champion from Jamaica, could manage was a half-smile. Trying for his third 100/200 double win in three Commonwealth Games, he found the 100 a rematch against Olympic champion Hasely Crawford of Trinidad and Tobago. They drew the same semifinal. Crawford got out fastest.
"I'm goin' get you," said Crawford at 70 meters.
Quarrie took five hard strides and shot past. "No you're not," he said, chiding index finger wagging. In the stands furious betting broke out among Jamaicans and Trinidadians and Tobagonians. One nervous neutral held $1,000 by the time of the final.
Crawford drew the same inside lane he had in Montreal. Quarrie was again across the track in lane 8. "I wasn't going to let Montreal happen again," said Quarrie. "There I passed Borzov and thought I had it, but I didn't see Hasely way over to the left. Here I wasn't going to look. Just run."
Crawford got off best. Quarrie came flying. Crawford thought he had won and held up an arm in conquest. Quarrie thought he had won and took a victory lap. All kinds of money changed hands, then changed back as the results were announced. Quarrie won in a wind-aided 10.03, while Crawford was timed in 10.09. Between them, in 10.07, was a 26-year-old converted long-jumper from Scotland named Allan Wells. Wells uses no starting blocks because they don't feel comfortable to him, trains his reflexes by punching a speed bag for half an hour a day and displays a refreshing unsprinterlike humility. "To get a silver medal in this field," he said, "is beyond my wildest dreams. Against Donald Quarrie nobody alive could do better."
That is against a sound Donald Quarrie. In the 200 semifinal, Quarrie leaped into the air with a cramp after 100 meters and didn't qualify for the final. Wells, after burning the turn in something like 10 flat, held off Guyana's James Gilkes in the stretch to win the gold in 20.12, also wind aided.
The race that all the distance runners wanted to win was the 5,000. Brendan Foster, the Games' 10,000 champion from England, was after it, as was teammate Mike McLeod. Both are from Gateshead; both are tall, fluid and tough. Foster, for five years England's best, is a gregarious soul, fond of pack running. McLeod is usually dour and silent, running only with his dog.
The weather conspired against the distance races. The 10,000 was slowed by heat. The steeplechase, made even more exhausting by high winds, was won by the incomparable Henry Rono in 8:26.5, followed by fellow Kenyans James Munyala and Kiprotich Rono (no relation).
Henry Rono admitted that he was tired of competing and was yearning for the season to end. As a result of his four world records this spring, he has been pursued from pillar to post by frantic meet promoters, shoe representatives and Kenyan officials. During summer races in Europe he picked up a sore knee, a sore hamstring, a sore calf.
"This man is headed for a breakdown," said a Finnish physiotherapist who has treated Rono. "He's had too many races."
But Rono races on. He won the 10,000 and steeplechase in the African Games, two weeks before Edmonton. "I don't think about records now," said Rono wearily. "Just about trying to win."
If anyone seemed capable of denying a vulnerable Rono the 5,000 at Edmonton, it was New Zealand's Rod Dixon, a faster finisher and now superbly fit. But as thunderheads gathered and huge warm raindrops began to fall on the runners assembling for the start, Dixon experienced an athlete's nightmare. He found that his bag containing racing spikes, number, credentials and $120 had been stolen. In a non-Olympic moment of flexibility, the start was delayed while a call went out for shoes—size 9½—and a black New Zealand singlet.
At length Dixon was equipped and the race began. Rono led after 800 meters. Foster raced ahead at 1,200. McLeod stayed a tight third. Dixon, in the pack, felt horrible. "I was shaking in my legs," he said. "My guts started turning, from the wrench of the thing. And they were useless bloody shoes, jumper's shoes." He finished a blistered, tearful eighth.
Rono regained the lead after five laps and ran on unchallenged to win in 13:23.04. Teammate Mike Musyoki, second in the 10,000, outkicked Foster for his second silver. Rono was awarded his medal by Kipchoge Keino, his inspiration and fan.
"I felt very bad today," Rono said, smiling, playful. "Last night there was a party and I danced a lot and had four beers and didn't get to sleep until 11 o'clock. I'm glad this is over."
Foster fixed Rono with a steady gaze. "I can say someone is going to beat him someday," he said. "But I can't say who, and I can't say how, and I can't say when."
The way to beat Filbert Bayi of Tanzania is to hang close and pray for rain. Bayi is running well, having escaped malaria attacks this summer. He won his 1,500 heat in 3:38.75 (his Commonwealth Games and world record is 3:32.2) and ran so gracefully that it looked 10 seconds slower. In the final Bayi planned to scorch the first lap in 53 seconds. But on Saturday, it rained, cold and hard.
"I hate rain," said Bayi. "If I train in it at home, I get chilled and then the malaria comes." So as planned, he led, but only with silken laps of 57.7, 57.6 and 58.7, a pace just within the capabilities of England's David Moorcroft and Scotland's John Robson. Moorcroft got a foot or two lead at the top of the stretch.
"The last 10 meters seemed like 100," said Bayi. Still, he held second by one-hundredth of a second from Robson. Moorcroft's winning time was 3:35.48 (the equivalent of a 3:53 mile). Bayi and Robson were were clocked in 3:35.59 and 3:35.60, respectively. Scotland's Frank Clement sprinted up the inside to hit 3:35.66, making the race the second-fastest of all time.
Later, Bayi said, "I think the 5,000 will be my favorite by 1980," adding that he half-regretted not taking a shot at Henry Rono. "He races too much, he trains so hard, so many miles," said Bayi. A careful, healthy world 1,500-meter record holder, he implied, such as Bayi himself, might be the man to topple the master.
"But I don't know when," he said. "That is what makes this life so entertaining."