Great Britain won eight gold medals at the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart but Daley Thompson defending his decathlon title in a tense contest against the German pair of Jurgen Hingsen and Siggi Wentz stands out even among that plethora of victories.
Having last lost a decathlon when he took the silver medal at the 1978 European Athletics Championships – not counting starting a decathlon he didn’t intend to finish in 1984 – Thompson began the two days of competition in the cavernous Neckar Stadium, which was full to its 60,000 capacity for nearly every session despite overcast skies for almost the entire week and regular downpours, as the clear favourite.
In the previous eight years, Thompson had amassed two Olympic titles, the inaugural world title and won at the previous European Athletics Championships four years earlier in Athens as well as setting four world records, but Hingsen and Wentz were obvious threats to his hegemony as were the East Germans Torsten Voss and Uwe Freimuth, who had placed one-two on the 1985 season’s list.
However, the gregarious Thompson warmed up on the morning of 27 August with a T-shirt that proclaimed, “Ready to take care of business,” and from the outset he looked as though he was going to be true to his word, getting proceedings underway with a personal best of 10.26 in the 100m.
He followed impressive opener with 7.72m in the long jump and 15.73m in the shot to stay in pole position but, ominously, Hingsen reduced the points deficit with better performances in both events.
With the atmosphere already starting to turn very partisan – apparently many of the German crowd had been antagonised by a widely circulated interview Thompson had given a few days before in which he had jokingly said, “ I will win because Jurgen Hingsen is too good looking (he had recently posed nude of a magazine), Siggi Wentz is too clever (he was a gifted medical student),” – Thompson only cleared 2.00m in the high jump and had to concede the lead to Hingsen after the latter cleared 2.12m.
However, Thompson went back in front overnight with a superb run of 47.02 in the 400m to finish the first day with 4617 points, 28 points ahead of Hingsen.
The Briton extended his lead the next day when running the 110m hurdles in a personal best of 14.04, almost half-a second faster than Hingsen; but a modest best discus effort of 43.38m – with many in the crowd now jeering and yelling abuse whenever Thompson went into the circle – more than five metres down on Hingsen’s 48.42m, saw the German back in the lead again after seven events.
Unfortunately for the German and his many fans, it was Hingsen’s turn to have a poor event as he could only clear 4.60m in the vault while Thompson went over 5.10m.
“That was probably the decisive event,” Hingsen was to reflect glumly later. “But Thompson also had his lows.”
Giving away little more than a metre in the javelin, Thompson threw 62.78m to Hingsen’s 64.78m, the Briton still knew that he would have to give everything in the excruciating 1500m finale to avoid defeat as Hingsen was generally a better runner in the last discipline.
However, in torrential rain, Thompson gritted his teeth and kept Hingsen in sight throughout the race before finishing in 4:26.16, just over four seconds behind the German who had run a magnificent 4:21.61 in the difficult conditions.
When all the arithmetic was done, Thompson finished the two days with a championship record of 8811 points, just 36 points short of his world record from two years before winning his second Olympic title in Los Angeles and improving his mark of 8743 from Athens, while Hingsen had to settle for his second successive silver behind Thompson with 8730 points with Wentz third having tallied 8676.
“I am pleased to win,” commented Thompson. “But if I may say so, the spectators were not too nice to me. But I think one of the decisive factors was I was able to rely on my experience.”
His parting shot to the crowd was a second T-shirt donned after the event with a German slogan that read on the front: “Germany’s three favourite sons …’ And on the back, ‘Boris (Becker), Bernhard (Langer) and Daley.”
“It had been, probably, his finest hour. Everyone knew that it would be a tough task to defeat the Germans on their home soil but Daley’s unrivalled competitiveness had won through,” wrote Tony Ward in his superb book Athletics: The Golden Decade which chronicled the British triumphs of the 1980s.
Intriguingly, the victory also remains Thompson’s career highlight.
When asked that very question by a British newspaper in 2011, with plenty of time for reflection almost 20 years after he had retired, Thompson answered: “Funnily enough not my two Olympic gold medals (but when) I won the European Championships in 1986 in Stuttgart. My biggest rivals were all German, so all the crowd was for them, and it was nice to shut them all up.”