Francis Daley Thompson, England's 20-year-old decathlete, sat back in his stadium seat and considered one unanticipated scourge of holding the British Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Alberta. " U.S. college recruiters," he said uneasily, glancing over his shoulder at rows of glittering, covetous eyes. "They all say, 'We have a big football stadium,' as if that answers all my questions. 'But I don't play football,' I say, and they say they know, but if they have football they have everything else I could possibly want. Or if they don't, they'll get it."
Thompson, son of a Nigerian father and an English mother, increased the interest of the flock of vultures when he won the Commonwealth decathlon last week with 8,467 points, 150 shy of Bruce Jenner's world-record 8,617. He is now history's third-best performer. More impressive than the score were his glaring flaws and compensatory brilliances, and the unshielded view he offered of his youthful psyche—all evidence of a great raw talent.
Perhaps that talent is best measured against Jenner's record, set in the Montreal Olympics. In the opening 100-meter dash, the thick-legged Thompson sprinted to a personal best of 10.50. Jenner had done 10.94 at Montreal. In the long jump, a strong 11.2-mph wind helped Thompson reach 26'7�", almost three feet beyond Jenner's 23'8�". The allowable wind in a decathlon is 8.9 mph, so Thompson's mark gets an asterisk, as does his 8,467.
Thompson put the shot 47'4�", Jenner 50'4�". Jenner high-jumped 6'8". Thompson began shakily, barely scraping over 6'2"; then, alternating splendid jumps with clunkers, he climbed to 6'8". He cleared that on his second try and missed twice at 6'9�", again looking sluggish. "I tend to forget what it is I'm doing out there," he said. But the crowd brought him to his senses and he made the height on his last chance, almost knocking the bar off when he raised his fist in celebration.
In the 400, the first day's final event, the wind appeared ready to take back what it had given in the long jump. A few minutes earlier runners in the open 400 had all finished about a second and a half slower than their bests, the result of plowing the first 200 meters into a 20-mph blast. Thompson started carefully, then hunched into the wind, passing the 200 in a modest 23.5. On the last turn, as the opposition began to tire, he alone held his form and moved away, finishing in 47.85. Jenner had done 47.51 in Montreal without an adverse wind. After the first day, Thompson's 4,550 points put him 253 ahead of Jenner's pace. "I am surprised," said Thompson, who didn't seem so at all. "But I'm still a first-day performer, a sprinter-jumper. Give me time and I'll be a decathlete."
It was not that Thompson came apart on the second day, simply that his inexperience in events requiring polished technique kept him from a world record. In the high hurdles he hit the first barrier, went off balance and nicked eight of the next nine, finishing in 14.92. "I was ready for 14.6," he said. "I was thinking about winning. I should have been thinking about hurdling." Jenner had done 14.84. In the discus, where Jenner had thrown 164'2", Thompson managed 136'9".
"Horrible, wasn't it?" he said. "It is an event that takes years to develop." But then Thompson grants himself a long and rich career, saying, "I don't expect to peak until I'm 30—in 1988."
In the pole vault Jenner had cleared 15'9"; Thompson also did 15'9" despite an approach run filled with veers and gallops. "It's like he's jousting," said an observer. "Or maybe there are a couple of streams running across his practice runway at home and he's used to jumping them." It seemed Thompson could make 17 feet if he used a stiffer pole, a faster run... "and a bit more courage," as he said. "I had a broken wrist in December, and this is only the third time I've vaulted this year."
In the javelin, another event of delicate technique, Jenner had thrown 224'9" at Montreal. Thompson got a personal best, but it was only 185'8�". That left him needing 4:05.8 in the 1,500 to break Jenner's record. His previous best was 4:20.2. On the starting line he all but conceded. "I couldn't do it," he said, "and an all-out effort would only put me close. That would be worse than missing by a lot." So Thompson ran within himself, with a jolting, pigeon-toed stride, to 4:25.78. He finished strongly, employing Jenner's arms-up gesture of triumph, then led his weary competitors on a victory lap. Against their haggard faces, his was still boyish, still eager.
Later, sitting in the stands before the start of the 5,000 meters, Thompson said, "There's not much Jenner can beat me in now. Just the discus and the javelin."