Jul 19 2012 By Paul Warburton
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AS the countdown to London 2012 reaches its climax, we take a look at West London's Olympic legacy - whether through Olympians from the area, or those who have had a lasting impact on it. Today, with nine days left, Paul Warburton looks at how Rome took a small, quirky and unassuming athlete from Cranford to their hearts.
THE reason Don Thompson MBE is famous is because the bespectacled clerk had the good luck to win an Olympic gold for Britain when no one else did.
Well, hardly anyone. The only other Brit to top a podium in Rome 1960 was swimmer Anita Lonsbrough at a time when amateur meant amateur in all senses.
While race walker Thompson was sweating amidst kettles and a poisonous paraffin heater in his Cranford bathroom to acclimatise for the Italian heat, others were doing their best to train, hold down a job, and ignore the pomposity of a British athletics organisation way behind the times.
Russia had belatedly entered the Olympics eight years earlier, and set about winning everything in sight in a very Russian way.
All three 20k walk medals went down the red path in 1956, while also in Melbourne, a dehydrated Thompson collapsed 5k from home in the longer 50k event.
Determined not to repeat the misery, the Hillingdon-born athlete, and by his own admission a failed teacher, taught himself to prepare better.
The BBC famously filmed him in the Cranford bathroom going through exercises in 87 degree-heat, which not only looked quaint, but if memory serves, carried a patronising sneer only the Oxford-enunciated vowels of the Beeb could manage.
However, fellow Rome Olympian Eric Hall remembers it differently.
“It was a great idea,” he said. “And had I thought of it, I would have done it too. It said something about how much Don wanted it.”
Don wanted it enough to be at the point of passing out.
At first, he thought it was the heat and humidity only to discover later it was carbon monoxide fumes from the heater.
Of course, all of that masked the hundreds of kilometres up and down the A4 – somewhat quieter 51 years ago, and a fierce determination that started at 4am each morning.
“No one wants your time at that hour,” he explained to me in a 1986 interview, “It allowed me time to get on with it.”
And got on with it he did in the Olympic final, wearing sunglasses and a foreign legion-type kepi made by his mum.
After two early leaders were disqualified he went neck-and-neck with 1948 champion John Ljunggren from halfway, and gradually inched ahead of the 40-year-old Swede in the last 5k to win in an Olympic record 4hrs:25mins:30secs – 17 seconds clear of Ljunggren.
There’s no doubt that with his odd-looking boots, head tilted right in his homemade hat, and standing just 5ft 5ins, Thompson was anything but the stuff of champions.
By comparison, the Italians had 200m gold medallist Livio Berruti to cheer with his attendant film-star looks, and quickly nicknamed the British walker ‘Il Topolino’ (mighty mouse).
But the mouse roared and kept on doing so with bronze in the 1962 European Championships and 10thin Tokyo’s Olympics in 1964.
He kept going for another 40 years after that, famously completing a marathon with a broken collarbone, and at 58 becoming the oldest ever GB international in a 200k walk in France in 1991.
“He could never keep still,” explained Hall. “He would walk up and down hotel rooms or in the Olympic Village, driving the rest of us mad. Don had that type of energy.”
At the same 1986 interview, the unassuming Thompson was persuaded to put on his Olympic medal for an award ceremony.
He looked bashful doing it.
“All I ever really wanted to do was to get through life causing…” and he paused searching for an up to date word, “causing no aggro to anyone, but enjoying athletics as much as I could.”