Don Thompson, 1960’s Sportsman of the Year, dies

Don Thompson, the diminutive British race walker dubbed Il Topolino by the Italian hosts after he won the 1960 Olympic 50km walk gold medal in Rome, has died. Thompson was 73.

Born in Hillingdon in 1933, Thompson, a 5ft 5in tall insurance clerk, had competed at the 1956 Olympics, but collapsed three miles from the Melbourne Cricket Ground when in fifth place and failed to finish.

When he struck Olympic gold in 1960, Thompson was only the second man to win a post-war Olympic athletics gold medal for Britain. But his victory came in an era of great tradition and success for walkers from this country: British-born walkers had won the Olympic 50km gold medal on three of the previous five occasions, while also in 1960, Stanley Vickers won the bronze medal in the 20km event, and four years later. Ken Matthews would win the 20km gold and Paul Nihill the 50km silver at the Tokyo Olympics.

Thompson was voted Sportsman of the Year in 1960 by the then Sports Writers’ Association as a result of his Olympic success, and he remains the only racewalker ever to have won the award.

Thompson’s preparations for the steamy heat of Rome have gone down in sporting legend.

Determined to be properly prepared, Thompson trained for the race by exercising in temperatures of 100-degrees F in his bathroom of his home in Kent which he “converted” into a steam room, using heaters and kettles of boiled water. “There was an electric heater attached to the wall and I thought, ‘well, that won’t provide enough heat’,” Thompson said in an interview 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.”

In Rome, it paid off, as the race was staged in 87-degree heat and Thompson found himself in the lead by the halfway stage. Three miles from the finish, his only challenger was the 40-year-old Swede, John Ljungren, the gold medallist in this event at the 1948 London Games. But as Ljungren wilted, Thompson strode to victory.

Thompson’s long-time friends and rival, Nihill, recalled him as being “clean-living and dedicated”. He was, Nihill recalled, “a great athlete who defied what a top sportsman is. If asked to do a couple of press-ups, he couldn’t.”

Thompson’s funeral is due to take place in Aldershot on October 18.