When Daley Thompson met Lord Sebastian Coe: Our two Olympic legends – and best of friends – discuss the Tokyo 2020 ‘Corona Games’, drugs cheats and super shoes… and agree on who’s the best athlete!
- Lord Seb Coe and Daley Thompson spoke to Sportsmail on all things Olympics
- The athletes both won Olympic golds in Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984
- Coe and Thompson were good friends then and have remained close ever since
- The athletics aces discuss controversies such as doping and shoe technology
- The best of their generation also focused on Team GB’s hopes at Tokyo 2020
We meet for lunch at L’Antico, a friendly Italian restaurant near Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea, champions of Europe, and the club Seb Coe follows as a season-ticket holder.
This place has played host to countless Coe family functions, including his son Harry’s lively 18th birthday, but it is still standing. So familiar is Coe with it that he does not require the menu to order.
A regular companion on lunch and dinner occasions here is another Olympic legend, Daley Thompson, who this minute has just won himself yet another award on the street outside — a parking ticket from an over-zealous warden as he tried to work his phone to pay for the space.
Lord Seb Coe (right) and Daley Thompson (middle) spoke to Sportsmail on all things Olympics
Both Thompson (left) and Coe won Olympic gold in Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984
Thompson comes in shaking his head at the injustice and Coe jokes that while his pal was away he was telling me how he was a far finer athlete than him. ‘And then you woke up,’ counters Thompson.
We have brought them together to chat over old times, when in the late 1970s and 1980s they were two of the most gifted and famous sportsmen on the planet, and to look ahead to the Covid-stricken Olympics that are about to unfold in Tokyo.
Both, of course, won Olympic gold medals in Moscow in 1980 and in Los Angeles four years later. Middle-distance king Lord Coe KBE and decathlon great Daley Thompson CBE, who should be knighted but couldn’t care less, for he is one of sport’s great iconoclasts, are the greatest of friends.
Coe calls him ‘D’, and Thompson hangs eagerly on his chum’s every word, often giving him the floor to tell stories of a time when they were headline news across the world.
The two talented sportsmen of their generations enjoyed a close friendship around Team GB
Thompson won eight medals in major competitions. Both set world records — Coe 11 of them — that stood the test of time, and gained a national celebrity that is impossible to emulate these days with multifarious media having diluted the message in the intervening years.
I ask them when they first met and how their lifelong affinity began? Over a couple of lemonades, Coe remembers the occasion more vividly than Thompson. It was 1977.
‘I have a funny story about that,’ says Coe.
‘You go on,’ says Thompson.
Coe: ‘I was making my British debut.’ Thompson: ‘So I was in the team before you then, was I?’ Coe: ‘Yes, but we were both making our debuts indoors. In Dortmund. You were in the 200 metres. I had been told by Mike Corden, a good decathlete as you know, that there was a potential star of the future. “Mark my words, there is just one guy to watch — Daley Thompson,” he told me.’
The two athletes even shared rooms during the most challenging of times at the Games – here, they a pictured in a lighter moment during a charity function in 2003
Thompson: ‘If this story involves a number, I know what you are going to say.’ Coe: ‘It was Great Britain versus West Germany and we had our team talk and then the manager handed us our numbers. I was given 007. D looked at it and said, “I think you’ll find that’s mine”.’ Thompson: ‘To which he promptly replied, “F*** off”.’
Coe: ‘Well, I said, “I think you’ll find it’s mine”. I’m not usually a bad judge of character and I thought if I let him walk over me, I’ve probably got 40 years of this. So my first time in a British shirt was as 007.’
And so a friendship was born. They spent Moscow in adjoining rooms and shared one in 1984.
‘I was with Allan Wells in 1980 and Allan is a nice guy but after a day and a half I thought I’d taken as many Andy Stewart tapes as I could listen to,’ continues Coe.
‘I lost the 800m, finishing second, which was a pretty high-profile defeat, and the next morning I was lying in bed not particularly wanting to get up. Allan had just won the 100m. D walked in and I said something lame like, “What’s the weather like?” and he walked to the curtains and opened them in our tower block in Moscow and said, “It’s pretty silver out there”.
Coe (left) was alongside Thompson (middle) when he was named 1982 Sportsman of the Year
‘And when I won the 1500m nearly four days later I was so exhausted mentally and physically that all I wanted to do was sleep. D came in again, with (swimmer) Sharron Davies, and asked me what I thought I was doing.
‘The next thing I knew I was head to toe covered in flour — a bucketload of the stuff.
‘With the 800m I was just short of championship experience. It’s chalk and cheese between a one-off meeting and the grind of a major event with round after round and the intensity of it all. I loved that. Daley did, too — the championship arena was his arena.
‘I often think selectors should ground a promising talent who is not quite ready for an upcoming Olympics but who has a good prospect of winning a medal next time around by selecting them to sample the environment of the Olympic village to prepare them.
‘You are away for two weeks, living with people you may not wish to live with. You come face to face with your competition and it’s something most people frankly don’t much enjoy.’
Thompson interjects: ‘Once Seb did what he did, by coming back from the defeat in the 800m to win the 1500m, everything after that is simple. You can do anything.’
The order of calves’ liver for Thompson and grilled chicken with spaghetti pomodoro for Coe is put in with the bonhomous proprietor Franco. Another lemonade for Thompson, who doesn’t drink, never has. He turns up in his only known outfit — a tracksuit — whether or not he is working at his gym in Putney. He even wore a tracksuit to Coe’s wedding.
Thompson still works out and but for a slight greying of his hair remains timeless. Coe runs every other day, usually for an hour, and occasionally on a treadmill. On the open road he wears no more than a standard wristwatch, not timing himself or working to a schedule. He maybe covers 12 kilometres.
Thompson (left) works at his south west London gym and Coe (right) is World Athletics boss
Other days he does free weights and maintains his sportingly wiry frame at 64, two years older than Thompson. Coe’s day job is as president of World Athletics, which means he is largely based at the organisation’s HQ in Monaco.
Talk turns to the pressure of competition, of the call room, the purgatorial holding space often the size of an average hotel room where athletes congregate immediately prior to their event.
‘Anyone who has sat in there 40 minutes before an Olympic final wondering which eight or nine of you has the winning lottery ticket in his pocket will never forget it,’ says Coe. ‘You learn a lot about yourself in that short time. There is nothing I have ever done that matches the intensity of that, not in my entire life.’
What about, I suggest, delivering the speech at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, as Coe did as chairman of the organising committee of London 2012.
Coe opened up about the difficulties of the ‘call room’ whilst waiting for an Olympic final
‘Not even in the foothills. The call room is a moment of Arctic loneliness. You are not looking at anybody.’ Over to Thompson: ‘I used to go over to someone and ask, “Do you think you can beat him?” “I don’t know,” they’d say. “Well,” I’d say, “he thinks he can beat you.” And that provoked an argument.
‘I wasn’t nervous in a bad way but excited by the anticipation of competition. I had butterflies but not nerves. One day, when the decathlon coincided with the 100m final, I remember Hasely Crawford, from Trinidad, a lovely guy, saying, “I’m going to kick your f****** arse”. Nobody looked up apart from Valeriy Borzov, who smiled through it all.’
Crawford took the gold and the defending champion Borzov, from the Soviet Union, the bronze.
This year’s Games in Tokyo, delayed by a year, will be different from all others. No fans, strict restrictions on movement. A hellish event, in truth.
Both Coe and Thompson will watch on as Tokyo 2020 tries to tackle a Games like no other
Coe knows intimately the problems the pandemic has wrought from his travels, including a trip to the test event in Japan. He was even stopped at Heathrow and asked to prove he was eligible to travel between France, for work, to Britain, where he lives.
‘What do you do?’ he was asked on the immigration desk. ‘I’m president of World Athletics,’ he responded. ‘Can you prove it?’ Tongue-in-cheek and exasperated, he replied: ‘Well, you can google it if you want.’
How would they have prepared for the ordeal of the Corona Games? Thompson: ‘It depends where you are in your career. If you were about to retire then doing an extra year is tough. You hope you have the experience to overcome that. But if you are young, it is another year to get stronger.
‘This comment may not only apply to sportspeople but I think some of the younger ones are not as robust as they might be, not as mentally resilient.
Coe has challenged athletes to open up more and engage with the media and its audiences
‘Maybe this is just an old man speaking, but they start getting depressed if they don’t get 200 “likes” on social media.
‘What they need to do is get some sort of perspective rather than care what people they don’t know think of them.’ Coe, wearing a more presidential hat, says: ‘It’s a tough one. We want athletes to have high profiles and to be interesting and to appeal to a new generation. Performance comes first, but engaging is important.
‘I wish some athletes would speak honestly and openly in press conferences, for example, rather than look to their agents as if they have been asked a trick question. As for phones pinging, a good coach would tell them to switch it off or put it aside for a few hours.’
Athletics has lost its big man, Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprint phenomenon, and has struggled for the limelight after he left a hole in the sport as big as Australia. For example, how many athletes could the average Briton name?
Thompson (right) is still close to old rival and golf player Jurgen Hingsen (left) of Germany
What we would give for a rivalry that lit up the world such as Coe versus Steve Ovett or Thompson taking on the West German giant Jurgen Hingsen. In passing, Coe is on friendly terms with his old sparring partner Ovett, now living in Australia, but says he barely knew him back in the day they were competing.
Thompson plays golf with Hingsen, who has started an eco-electricity business back home. ‘I let him win at golf — actually he’s a good player, off about eight,’ says Thompson, who always rose in the fire of major championships while in 1984 Hingsen collapsed, promoting Coe to joke: ‘What’s the German for souffle?’
Athletics, like most sports, is also assailed by the ever-present curse of drugs. All this is contained in Coe’s in-tray and the subject of fair competition energises both men. Coe says: ‘We have set up an integrity unit, as you know, and feel we are dealing with it well, without being complacent.
‘The unit is totally independent and I wouldn’t know, give or take within 12 hours of a positive result, who is being investigated.
Thompson and Coe spoke to Sportsmail over lunch at L’Antico in west London
‘It takes constant vigilance and good intelligence, with information gathered from athletes and coaches. It operates without concern for reputation. Everyone is treated the same.’
Another burning subject is shoes, namely the Nike Air Zoom Victory spikes that are so technically advantageous that they are ripping up running’s record books. This was brought into sharp focus when Elliot Giles beat Coe’s British indoors record for the 800m in Poland in February. Elliot clocked 1min 43.63sec, a two-second leap.
Should World Athletics not intervene? As Thompson points out, veteran Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is running faster than ever. ‘Who manages that at 34?’ ‘Linford Christie (who won the Olympic 100m gold aged 32 in 1992),’ counters Coe, but he knows it is a rare example and not exactly applicable, and tackles the point.
Elliot Giles beat Lord Coe’s British indoors record for the 800m in Poland back in February
Giles was wearing the controversial Nike Air Zoom Victory spikes which are ‘advantageous’
‘When Elliot beat my record my phone went manic. People were commiserating with me that the record I set in 1983 had gone. I told them it was 38 years ago!
‘I ran on a track with a thin piece of rubber on concrete and warmed up with about four tracksuits on, it was that cold.
‘For Elliot, the conditions were perfect — that’s a sign of progress. He’s a very, very fine athlete and I was delighted for him. He trains hard, had a pacemaker, and has a super coach in Jon Bigg.
‘With the shoes, we need some historical perspective. A few days ago my daughter came down with some old shoes she had found — Dunlop Green Flash. She said they looked good. I told her I won my first road race in them and ran 35 miles a week in them.
Coe (right) admits World Athletics should have looked at the shoe technology debate sooner
‘You should feel the weight of the shoes Roger Bannister ran the four-minute mile in. They individually weighed more than both my spikes combined. There is not a company thinking how to design a pair of shoes that go slower.
‘But to be honest, shoes technology was not the No1 issue before me when I took over at World Athletics but we maybe should have dealt with this a bit sooner.
‘We have 18 months’ work to evaluate this, to see if the energy return is out of kilter, and science will help us make the right observations and conclusions. We will modify and adapt, but I don’t want you to think it’s all about shoes.’
From shoes to the stars. Coe is excited by the talent we will see in Tokyo. He mentions our own world champion sprinter Dina Asher-Smith and heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson.
Dina Asher-Smith and Katerina Johnson-Thompson (right) will be Team GB’s focus in Tokyo
Further afield, he name-checks 400m hurdler Sydney McLaughlin of America and Swedish pole vault sensation Mondo Duplantis, plus he is sorry that 800m world gold medallist Donavan Brazier fell foul of the do-or-die US trials with all their thrill and jeopardy. He is filled with excitement by the strength and potential of Britain’s middle-distance contingent.
Thompson, who will commentate for the BBC from as close to Tokyo as Salford, points to France’s Kevin Mayer as the firm favourite for his old crown.
Talking of crowns, who is the greatest British Olympian of them all, I ask. Thompson talks of Coe’s success in the blue riband, as twice winner of the 1500m showpiece, the most competitive of all track disciplines.
Coe (right) has described his pal Thompson (left) as the greatest British Olympian of them all
But we leave the final, fraternal word to Seb. ‘You could have 20 people in a room and get 20 answers. There is a good case for Sir Steve Redgrave, and Britain is blessed by the depth of our success. But for me, Daley is the greatest, full stop.
‘He was undefeated from 1978 to 1987 in a truly global sport. I don’t think anyone has had such a vice-like grip on any event ever.’ ‘D’ smiles and laughs at that. He liked the compliment, though.
The lunch is drawing to a close. Franco clears the plates. Let the Games begin.
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