Don Thompson - Centurions1911

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Don Thompson

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Amongst the Greats - Don Thompson MBE

Don, who was one of the elder statesman of English walking, will be forever remembered for winning the Gold Medal at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games - and of course for his unique training methods prior to this race!

Don, born on Friday 20th January 1933 in Hillingdon in London, was not your typical Olympic champion. Standing 5 feet 5½ inches (1.68m) and weighing only 120 lbs, he must have looked a scrawny specimen when he first took up racewalking in 1951 at 18 years of age. He joined Metropolitan Walking Club, the same club where Harold Whitlock was a member and, although he had no formal coach, he was happy to receive advice from Whitlock throughout his career.

It did not take long before people started to notice the young walker. In 1954, he suffered through his first London to Brighton walk (52 miles) and had truly found his calling. By 1955 he was amongst the leading walkers over the 50 km distance and in the longer ultra walking distances. During that breakthrough year, he was 2nd in the R.W.A. 50 km championship in 4:34:39, won the London to Brighton in 8:06:24 and won the Milan 100 km championship in his first international event. People quickly realised that an indomitable spirit made up for his small stature and unsophisticated technique.

The next year, he improved one place to win the R.W.A 50 km championship in 4:24:39 and then won the London to Brighton classic with 7:45:24, breaking Harold Whitlock's 1935 race record of 7:53:50. These performances catapulted him into world class and he was rewarded with selection in the 1956 Olympic 50 km event. Alas, things did not go according to plan in Melbourne and, in hot conditions and on a tough course, Don collapsed when placed 5th with just 5 km to cover. It was a salutory lesson which he did not forget.
From then on, he was unbeatable over the longer distances in England. In 1957, he defended his R.W.A. 50 km title with 4:41:48, won the Hastings to Brighton classic (38 miles) in 5:45:22 to break Tommy Richardson's 1936 course record by 7 secs, and then won his third London to Brighton in an unbelievable time of 7:35:12. In fact an alteration to the Brighton road had increased the distance by 1195 yards to 53 miles 129 yards but Don still broke his record by nearly 20 minutes! This record still stands today, nearly 50 years later.

In 1958, he improved his 50 km time to 4:21:50 in winning his third R.W.A. Title at Wimbledon and came a great 5th in the European 50 km championships in Stockholm in 4:25:09. Of course, it goes without saying that he also defended his London to Brighton title.
1959 saw a special performance when he set a huge PB of 4:12:19 in winning his fourth R.W.A. 50 km title at Baddersley. This event also saw the first 3 places going to Metropolitan walkers (W Misson was 2nd and N. Thompson was 3rd). He also came within a whisker of his own London to Brighton record after fading in hot conditions to win in 7:35:2

He was now ready for his second Olympic attempt and, remembering how he faltered in 1956, he decided to prepare as well as he could for the conditions he would probably encounter in Italy: searing heat and high humidity. His solution - he sealed his bathroom, heated it, filled it with steam and started vigorously exercising during the weeks leading up to the Games. "There was an electric heater attached to the wall and I thought, 'well, that won't provide enough heat,'"

Thompson said last year. “I had to boost the humidity, too, so I got a Valor stove and put that in the bath. Half an hour was more than enough; I was feeling dizzy by then. 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." Thus did he prepare, in addition of course to his regular road walking.

He returned to a hero's welcome as befitted Britain's only 1960 athletics gold medallist and promptly got back to 'basics' by winning yet another London to Brighton race within days of his triumph. He finished off the year with a second win in the prestigious Milan 100 km event.

The next couple of years saw him continue on his merry way, fresh with the confidence of knowing he was an Olympic champion. He won the 1961 and 1962 R.W.A. 50 km championships, the Hastings to Brightons and the London to Brightons. He also participated in the inaugural Lugano Cup in 1961, taking silver in the 50 km event in 4:30:35 and took bronze in the 1962 European 50 km championship in 4:29:02.

Yet Don was an unassuming person, lacking in the airs and graces one might have expected. He was willing to talk to anyone and was indeed a credit to the sport of racewalking and to the great English tradition.

Tim Erickson
Sat 7 October 2006

Don at the 1960 Rome Olympics

Don's list of achievements makes for awesome reading

  • 8 RWA 50 km championship wins (1955-1962, 1966)
  • 9 London to Brighton wins (1955-1962, 1967)
  • 4 Hastings to Brighton wins (1957, 1960-62)
  • 2 wins in the Milan 100 km (1955, 1960)
  • 3 Olympic 50 km (1956, 1960, 1964) with a Gold medal in 1960
  • 3 European 50 km championship (1958, 1962 and 1966)
  • 3 Lugano Cup 50 km  (1961, 1965, 1967)
  • 1 Commonwealth Games 20 Miles (1966)
  • 4 times winner of the Edgar Horton Cup 1956-1958, 1961 (RWA award for best individual performance during the Association year)
  • In the early 1960s, he was the British record holder for 20, 25 and 30 miles, 3, 4 and 5 hours, 25, 30, 40 and 50 km.

England Athletics Hall of Fame 2013
At a ceremony in Birmingham, 9 athletic's greats were inducted into the England Athletics Hall-of-Fame.

GB 1960 50K Olympic gold medallist and Centurion DON THOMPSON MBE was duly recognised.

Amongst others greats joining Don in this prestigious award were:
Alan Pascoe MBE,
Gordon Pirie,
Jim Peters
Mel Watman.

Truly Don was indeed amongst the greats.
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