Daley Thompson and Jane Frederick sat on the high-jump pit in tiny Mösle Stadium in Götzis, Austria and reflected. It was Saturday afternoon, near the end of the first day of the Götzis International Decathlon and Heptathlon. A few raindrops fell. Frederick had completed the first four events of the heptathlon and was 40 points ahead of the pace that took her to an American record 6,308 here a year ago, though now she led the second-place competitor, Anke Vater of East Germany, by only 30 points.
Thompson, 23, the 1980 Olympic champion from Great Britain, had been superb, winning the 100 meters and long jump and amassing 3,677 points after four events, putting him well ahead of the pace of Guido Kratschmer when the West German set the decathlon world record of 8,649 in 1980. (Kratschmer had lifted the record from Thompson, who less than a month earlier had taken it from Bruce Jenner.)
Yet in Götzis, Thompson was nobly pursued. Not by Kratschmer, who had passed up the meet, but by the record holder's 24-year-old countryman, Jürgen Hingsen. The 6'6¾", 225-pound Hingsen had achieved personal records in three events, won the shotput and tied for first in the high jump, and lay 62 points back, dangerously close if his second day was as heroic as his first.
One event remained for the men that evening, the 400 meters. There would be six sections to accommodate the 26 competitors, with Thompson and Hingsen in the sixth. No one in the first section of the race broke 50 seconds. A stiff, cold wind had come up and it blew in the runners' faces for the initial 100 meters, tiring them early. Thompson watched that race closely from his seat on the high-jump pit. He watches everything closely. He saw his British teammate, Colin Boreham, run 48.17 in the fourth section. "I was unsure how to run," Thompson said. "Colin had run a personal best, despite that wind...shown it could be done. I couldn't let him down. Couldn't let myself down."
Thompson slipped off the foam pit and said to Frederick, "Well, I'm going for it." He hadn't broken 48 seconds in decathlon competition in four years, having compromised his running in order to improve once weak events such as the shot, pole vault and discus. "Now," said Frederick, "it's crack 47 or die for that guy."
Thompson was in Lane 3, Hingsen in 2, where he could keep an eye on him. At the gun, Thompson bolted into the gale as if the race was a mere 100. "I think I overcompensated for the wind," he would say later. He passed the 200 in 21.5, sprinting furiously, far clear of Hingsen and the field. Thompson has a scooting sort of stride, with little knee lift, a style that can switch from overdrive to stagger very quickly. Yet entering the stretch he still held a lead of 12 yards. "I tried to go even faster," he said. "But I couldn't." The power of his heavily muscled arms and shoulders and back seemed to carry Thompson's faltering legs as he leaned and strained for the tape. He hit it in 46.86, the best time of his life. "Better, under the conditions," said Ron Pickering, the British coach, "than Bill Toomey's 45.69 in the altitude of Mexico City in 1968."
In fact, it was Toomey, the Olympic champion that year, who seemed to be Thompson's inspiration. Thompson had said, "He told me once, 'You get 'em all in the 100, and to make sure they know you mean business, you get 'em again in the 400.' " Thompson sat, a little faint, on the high-jump pit where he'd gathered his resolve. "I meant business, didn't I?" he said.
Hingsen had run 47.86, a personal record by a full second, yet had lost by a full second. He sank onto the thickly-padded lawn chair on which he rested between events while a comely friend iced his legs. "I said that Daley was unbeatable just now," Hingsen said, and now he believed it. With 955 points for the 400, Thompson's first-day total was 4,632, the highest ever, and 172 ahead of Kratschmer's world-record pace. Yet the record seemed but an abstraction to Thompson, compared with his vibrant competition with Hingsen, who had 4,520. "He's got a best of 14.2 in the 110-meter hurdles [the event that would open the second day]," said Thompson. "If I get him in that one, it will put him back in his lawn chair. I think this is going to be a great, great decathlon. Hingsen could break the world record and get second."
A decathlon of such magnitude is rare to begin with and has always seemed to demand the background of an Olympics. Yet this struggle was taking place in a quiet village of 9,000 in the westernmost tip of Austria. The still-snowy Vorarlberg mountains formed a calming backdrop, and the athletes' familiar fragrances of wintergreen and baby powder were overmatched by that of Brown Swiss cows in an adjoining pasture.
"Why do I come here?" said Thompson. "Well, I set the short-lived world record [8,622] here two years ago, and the people are wonderful. Also, it's the only decathlon invitation I ever get."