Rome 1960: unorthodox training method yields Olympic gold

Rome 1960: unorthodox training method yields Olympic gold

The 1960 Rome Olympics saw a lean haul of medals for the British team with only two golds across the whole Games. One was in the pool, Anita Lonsbrough winning the 200m breaststroke, the other was out on the roads with Don Thompson, seeking redemption, taking it to the line the 50km Racewalk.

Rome 1960: unorthodox training method yields Olympic gold

Thompson’s medal was the result of a meticulous yet unorthodox training method. Having collapsed due to the heat four years prior in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic racewalk, Thompson was determined to be better acclimatised this time round. But how to prepare for the gruelling heat of the Italian summer when the chilly dampness of Britain is your usual climate?
Thompson’s answer: an impromptu steam room in his parent’s bathroom in Cranford. With the hot water creating the humidity and paraffin heaters to increase the temperature to well over 30oC in the tiny room Thompson trained “on the spot”, acclimatising himself to the soaring temperatures he expected to face in Rome. At the time, he attributed the feeling of drowsiness which would come over him after about 45 minutes or so in his makeshift heat chamber as the effects of the humidity. In later years, as more became known about the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, it seems likely that he was suffering from the effects of the vapours from the paraffin heaters he was using to achieve the temperatures he required.

Thompson was selected for the 1960 British Olympic Team. Detailed instructions to the team were issued by the British Amateur Athletic Board (BAAB), including a note about the need for sunglasses. Thompson, knowing the effects of the heat and not wanting to take chances, decked himself out not only with sunglasses for the race, but also a specially made hat with a flap of fabric sewn in at the back by his mother to protect his neck from the scorching sun.

On race day Thompson set off steadily. At the 20km mark he was in 5th place, but with two athletes disqualified, and two more succumbing to the heat, he took the lead. Around the 30km mark Thompson found himself neck-and-neck with Swedish athlete John Ljunggren. The two stayed together, each unable to shake the other one off until about the 45km mark, the point where Thompson had faded in the 1956 Olympic race. This time it seemed his rival was fading. Thompson managed to inch ahead over those last few kilometres. He entered the stadium and the finals throes of the race some 17 seconds ahead of Ljunggren, and held on to the lead to take the gold medal.

Thompson, who was of fairly diminutive stature next to his fellow competitors was affectionately dubbed ‘Il Topolino’ (the little mouse) by the Italian press after his victory. He would go on to win bronze in the 1962 European Championships in Belgrade over the same distance, and came tenth at the Tokyo Olympics. He continued competing until the early 1990s, winning the 53 mile London to Brighton race on eight consecutive occasions, completing more than 150 marathons and taking part in the Centurion racewalk, a 100 mile race completed in under 24 hours, in 1978. In 1991 Thompson became Britain’s oldest international representative at the age of 58 when he competed in a match against France. He was made an MBE in 1970.

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Olympic Memories project.

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