Decathlon icons! Daley and Hingsen recall an Olympic rivalry that shook the world…
22:09 GMT, 24 July 2012
Daley Thompson reaches across the decades to embrace Jurgen Hingsen on a terrace overlooking the Olympic Stadium.
Nearly 30 years have passed since these two heroes of athletics’ golden age famously posed together in Lanzarote, where they were training for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, little Daley dwarfed at 6ft dead by big Jurgen, a human cliff of 6ft 7in. And today, brought together by Sportsmail, they recreate that image of their rivalry by jesting in front of the camera, pretending to land a punch on each other’s chin.
The jousting was for real in the 1980s when they were the two finest decathletes on earth: the cheeky-chappy Brit against the West German from central casting.
Best of enemies: British Olympic great Daley Thompson (right) hugs his old foe, Jurgen Hingsen
The two moustachioed men exchanged world records endlessly but it was Thompson who claimed all the major prizes. It was his nerveless ability to summon super-human feats in the heat of competition and his extraordinary competitive instinct that won eight gold medals at Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth level.
He combined all that with an irreverent humour — a trait that remains intact at this reunion over a salmon platter at Foreman’s.
‘There is a certain brotherhood, an energy when we meet,’ says Hingsen. ‘I am always happy when I am in Daley’s company because there is something that connects us. It’s something I want to cherish for the rest of my life. We don’t see each other very often. It is sometimes two or three years. When I turned 50, four years ago, I wanted to invite Daley. There is nobody in the world that would give me more joy and fun than Daley.’
Talk turns to the golf they played on that previous meeting. ‘You tried to beat me, but I didn’t let you,’ smiles Hingsen, knowing it was the rarest of wins. Rivalry like this never sleeps. Friends now, but bitter adversaries to start with, we rewind the clock to 1976 when, as teenagers, they first met on a bus on the way to the long jump in Bremen, Germany.
Still bickering: Thompson and Hingson trade playful blows in front of the Olympic Stadium
Thompson, fast-tongued in contrast to Hingsen’s German hauteur, recalls: ‘I remember going back to my coach Bob Mortimer and telling him that I had met another decathlete and he was really big. That’s what I remember.
‘He was 6ft 7in. Well, he still is. Oh yeah, I was worried by him. We had the European Junior Championships the next year, didn’t we big fella In Donetsk. We were there. That was 1977. There was a big storm. Thunder and lightning. We had to stop the javelin. You asked to go in and I was happy to stay out.’
Hingsen comes clean: ‘We hated each other. This guy called me “Hollywood Hingsen”.
‘He put my picture on the toilet, stuff like that. He thought he was God’s greatest gift.’
Thompson smiles: ‘And now, looking back, I was telling the truth.’
Their defining moment came in the decathlon at the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, with the two days of drama played out under scorching sun.
Hingsen had not competed at Moscow in 1980 when Thompson had won his first gold. But four years later he was the world-record holder and bragged that he would triumph in this mighty collision.
Thompson had retorted: ‘There are only two ways he is going to take a gold medal home: he’ll have to steal mine or win another event.’
It was a battle of differing styles, temperaments and techniques: the methodical Hingsen versus the force of nature that was Thompson, who wore his emotions on his sleeve.
Time flies: Nearly 30 years have passed since Thompson and Hingsen battled at the Los Angeles Games
Hingsen says: ‘I was not typical as decathletes don’t have to be standard-sized. It is even a disadvantage to be that tall. First of all you have to use a lot more energy. Secondly flexibility.
‘For tall guys pole vault is a pain in the a***, to get 220lb up there. That’s not very easy. Most of the Olympic heroes at that time were much smaller than me — the size of Daley, a little bit taller maybe. It is not ideal to be as tall as me.’
Only 32 points separated them as they competed in the pole vault, the eighth of 10 disciplines and not one of Thompson’s favourites. He needed to clear the bar at 16 feet and succeeded, moving into a virtually unassailable lead.
His joyous celebration — that famous back flip — was electrifying. He still gets asked about it regularly now. Prior to the pole vault Hingsen had fallen asleep under a canopy, suffering from nausea in the heat.
So comfortable was Thompson’s lead after the javelin that he strolled through the final event, the 1500 metres, rather than chase the world record.
‘It is so interesting,’ says Hingsen. ‘We had an official Olympic film from 1984 where hundreds of Americans won gold medals. It was a two-and-a-half hour film: 16 Days of Glory.
‘Half an hour is given over to the decathlon. Then two hours of hundreds of other events. That shows the respect people had for the event. People got to know what decathlon is. You can ask any kid on the street these days and they don’t know.
Power surge: Daley (right) edges out Hingsen (keft) during a 110m hurdles race in 1986
Friendly rivalry: The wise-cracking Thompson and the more haughty Hingsen were a great contrast
‘Maybe they know swimming, or running. But football is so big these days. Daley and I had one of the major rivalries.
‘There was Coe-Ovett — that was a classic. In boxing, Frazier-Ali was a classic. In motor racing, there was Senna-Prost. That was a classic. Ours was a classic. There were just five tv stations in Germany then. Now you have 250 different stations. It dilutes it all.
‘Sport is quick. You are a star and next day you are gone. These older guys, even in world soccer like 1964, they are more famous.’
Thompson steps in to make a significant correction: ‘Let’s not talk about ’64, let’s talk about ’66…’
Hingsen continues: ‘That’s right, yeah, ’66. Today, if you want to make it for a long period of time you must win every year. And then when that does happen — with Michael Schumacher for example — it gets boring.
Jousting session: The pair in Lanzarote
‘Nobody wants to see that. They want
to see ups and downs. They want to see you coming up and see you falling
down. That’s what happens in real life. What we presented was real
‘I always said the two of us would have set the world record for the next thousand years.
‘I had the athletic ability, very strong with my size of 220lb. I could long jump over 8m, high jump 2.18m, shot put well.
‘My technique was not as good as Daley’s — his was excellent. I had a coach who did not let me train with specialists. As for Daley’s mental ability, well … he could also pull something out of his pocket…’
The enthusiasm for their event and high-level sport fizzes, especially from Thompson, a non-drinker who orders his umpteenth Sprite to wash down the salmon.
Aged 53, he often still lurches into the present tense when he talks of competing. He dresses as he always has: in training kit, this time shorts. Heavens, he turned up at his mate Seb Coe’s wedding in a tracksuit.
Thompson, the iconoclast, loves the Olympics perhaps more than anything, his family apart. He looks across at the Olympic Stadium, gleaming in the sun as it makes a rare appearance in this bleak summer. Hingsen, who now runs several successful businesses in Germany, says it looks impressive. Thompson retorts: ‘Mate, it’s the best.’
Thompson is also enthused by the exploits of the poster boy who would be decathlon king: 24-year-old Ashton Eaton, who broke the world record in the American trials in Oregon last month, scoring 9,039 points.
‘He’s the one to do it, I think,’ said Daley of the Olympic decathlon. ‘He is talented, strong. But don’t be silly, it’s not the same any more. As Jurgen was saying, it’s about personality.’
‘Yes,’ agrees Hingsen. ‘The Americans are coming up, but are good maybe for four years.
‘We were up there, all the time, for 13 years. That is the most difficult part.’
Stuck in the middle: Sportsmail's McEvoy with the two great decathletes in Stratford
Thompson takes another drink and looks over to the stadium, wistful because he never competed in a decathlon in Britain. ‘I had this fantastic thought today,’ he says. ‘What I wish more than anything is that he and I are at our peak and we had the opportunity to compete in front of a full house.
‘I remember Stuttgart in 1986 at the European Championships and there were 65,000 people shouting for him.
‘I want him to know the fear that runs through you. If that happened I’d bring him a pair of incontinence pants.’
Over to Hingsen, unruffled by the latest banter.
‘What do you say in a marriage, Daley’ he asks. ‘She always has the last word.’
‘I love you too,’ replies Thompson. Two legends still bickering but forever bound together in mutual respect.