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Thompson bolts to silver

Olympic Medal Men - an 8-part series

By Dr Basil Ince

OLYMPIAN, written by Dr Basil Ince, was published in 2011. The book examines, in detail, the history of Trinidad and Tobago’s Olympic participation. Included in OLYMPIAN are profiles of the country’s eight individual Olympic medallists, between 1948 and 2008. Between July 17 and August 9, excerpts from those eight profiles are being featured in the pages of the Trinidad Express. The profiles, in their entirety, are being published on the Express website (http://www.trinidadexpress.com/olympics).

Today, we feature sprinter Richard Thompson. He seized silver in the 100 metres dash at the 2008 Games, in Beijing, China.

Richard ‘Torpedo’ Thompson entered Louisiana State in 2005 on a track scholarship but he really did not show any signs of what he would later accomplish in the track world. He had been recruited by coach Dennis Shaver when he was a 10.65 sprinter in Trinidad and Tobago only after his coach, Ashwin Creed, sent Shaver a video showing Thompson in action and insisting that he could become the real deal. Coach Shaver has never regretted it.

Thompson, however, when he got to Louisiana State, thought he had to prove that “I was worthy of being here. You could probably say that I was insecure in the beginning…I’m sure coach Shaver was probably thinking to himself…why did we sign this guy.” In his freshman year he ran the 100m in 10.66 seconds and represented the LSU Tigers on 400m relay teams. He continued on relay teams in the following year but cut his 100m time to 10.43. The improvement was steady and in his junior year he finished fifth in the NCAA 100m and recorded

20.9 seconds for the 200m. But when Richard began to clock fast times in his senior year he would look back at this early period and say, “I’ve been here three years and I’ve had my worst performances each year until now.” In reality, Richard was really improving steadily every year.

Thompson actually began to put everything together in Olympic year 2008. This was foreshadowed when he won the NCAA Indoor 60m Championships in the swift time of 6.51 seconds. In his first meet at the Texas Relays in April, he ran a nifty 10.00 seconds flat for the 100m. Pleased with his time then, he declared: “I’m running with a lot of confidence right now.”

In May at the Southeastern Conference Outdoor Championships in Auburn, Alabama, he joined the country’s three elite sprinters, Ato Boldon, Marc Burns and Darrel Brown, who had run sub ten seconds 100 metres. Richard entered the elite club with a 9.93 seconds, and chortled, “It’s a great accomplishment. It’s a great feeling.”

He had done 10 flat in April, and as he put it: “I expected to be under 10…I’ve been feeling really good after the ten flat. Years ago I did not think I could run sub 10.”

When an athlete begins to run fast, he usually continues on that trajectory. At the end of May, Richard was up to his fast running ways when he did 9.97 seconds at Fayetteville, Arkansas. In the form of his life, he was already looking forward to the NCAA, the top collegiate meet of the year. In fact, he had been looking forward to that meet since the indoor season when he had won the 60m dash in 6.51 seconds. He declared then: “By the time June comes around and we go to the NCAA meet, people will be forgetting what happens indoors. I want to prove to myself and everyone else this outdoor season, that I can be one of the greatest sprinters ever to come through LSU.”

The 6’2” sprinter from Queen’s Royal College was in the colours of LSU’s purple and gold, when he went to the NCAA meet in Des Moines, Iowa. On an unseasonably cool and unfavourable evening, Thompson brimmed with confidence although the double winner on two previous occasions, Walter Dix of Florida State, was in the lineup. Dix would go on to win two medals at the Olympics in Beijing. At the end of the race, 10.12 in unkind weather, Richard had become the NCAA 100m champion, doing what Ato Boldon and Hasely Crawford had done. Besides, Thompson accomplished that which only Trinidad and Tobago’s Olympic champion, Hasely Crawford, had achieved: the LSU Tiger had won both the indoor and outdoor dashes at the NCAA. He also finished second in the 200m, Dix getting the better of him in the longer distance. Although Thompson prefers running the 100m, he is an able 200m man, clocking swift times of 20.18, 20.21, and 20.23.

Before Thompson burst forth on the athletic scene, he had done a couple of international outings but did not advance to the final at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2007. He also ran at the World Championships in Osaka, Japan, and finished eighth in the semi-final of the 100m. In 2008, however, after a sterling year at Louisiana State in which he raced unbeaten in the 100m, Richard was ready to take on the best in the world at the Olympics.

In his first heat at the Games in Beijing, Thompson clocked 10.24 seconds and that was the last time that he would run above the 10-second mark at the Olympics. In all his other races he ran sub 10 times, running faster on each occasion. Champions improve their times on each successive run. In his second heat, Thompson who is blessed with the ability to start fast, ran 9.99 seconds to beat the American, Tyson Gay. Gay had won the 100m at the US trials but had pulled a muscle in the 200m and never regained his earlier zip.

Both semi-finals were hot. In the first, the Jamaican Usain Bolt ran 9.85 seconds, with Dix following in 9.95, and the other Trinidad and Tobago entrant, Marc Burns, recording a swift 9.97 seconds. In the second semi-final, the other Jamaican, Asafa Powell, hurtled to a 9.91 seconds 100m, with Thompson on his heels in 9.93, and Churanda Martina of the Netherlands Antilles third in 9.94 seconds. This was a fantastic final in which six of the eight finalists had run sub 10 seconds in the semi-finals. It was also historic because six of the eight finalists were from the Caribbean. Michael Frater of Jamaica had joined his Caribbean colleagues in the final.

At the crack of the gun, only Dix could match Thompson coming out of the blocks with a reaction time of .133 seconds. Powell was on their heels with .134, with Bolt having the second slowest reaction time of .165. The eventual fourth place finisher, Martina, had come out of the blocks in .169. Although Thompson was out before Bolt at the start, Bolt soon caught up with Thompson. Richard confirms: “I had a pretty good start. I thought I was with Usain up to about 15m and I just felt him pulling away after that.”

During the race as Bolt accelerated, Thompson knew that he could not match the “phenomenal” Bolt. Usain was about his own business. He covered the distance in a new world and Olympic record of 9.69 seconds despite slowing down in the last 20 metres. Had Bolt not purposely decelerated, University of Oslo physicist, Hans Kristian Eriksen, opined that he could have recorded 9.55 seconds. Thompson was ecstatic to have won the silver in 9.89 seconds and described his second place after Bolt as a “great accomplishment.” Dix secured the bronze in 9.91, Martina fourth in 9.93, Powell fifth in 9.95, and Frater sixth in 9.97. It was a proud day for Thompson who joined the Trinidad and Tobago exclusive band of 100m medallists, McDonald Bailey, Hasely Crawford, and Ato Boldon.

But Thompson had more work to do since he was a member of the national team in the 400m relay. While competing at Louisiana State he had been a workhorse on its relay teams, which won gold medals at the NCAA Championships in 2006 and 2008. He had also had the opportunity to run with national relay squads and had competed in 2008 at the CAC Games and the NACAC Games with Keston Bledman, Marc Burns, and Aaron Armstrong where they ran 38.54 seconds, then the second fastest time in the world.

In the qualifying round the team of Bledman, Burns, Armstrong, and Thompson started in lane 8, one lane outside the US team. Bledman had replaced the ailing Darrel Brown on the national team which had no problem qualifying. The US team, however, dropped the baton and did not reach the final. At that point it seemed that the race for the gold would be contested between the Jamaican and Trinbagonian teams. The Jamaican team, however, had an advantage on paper since three of its members had reached the 100m final, and its fourth member, Nesta Carter, had already run a sub ten 100m. Trinidad and Tobago fielded the same qualifying team with the exception of Emmanuel Callender who replaced an ailing Aaron Armstrong.

The teams ran true to form with Jamaica winning the gold with a jaw-dropping world record of 37.1 seconds. Trinidad and Tobago grabbed silver with a tremendous run by Thompson who had to make up ground. The national team clocked 38.06 seconds in winning Trinidad and Tobago’s first Olympic relay medal since the 1600m team of Ed Skinner, Kent Bernard, Ed Roberts, and Wendell Mottley in 1964. The margin of victory of the Jamaican team was .96 seconds, the largest since the US team with Jesse Owens beat the Italian team in 1936. The national team exulted in its victory and two of its members could be forgiven for saying that the silver medal felt like gold.

In his first Olympic Games Richard Thompson had won two silver medals. Richard, the last of the four children of Ruthven and Judith Thompson, was born in Port of Spain on June 7, 1985. He attended Newtown Boys RC school before proceeding to Queen’s Royal College. He was always into sports and participated in football, swimming, karate, and in athletics, he did track, the javelin, the triple jump, and the long jump. Richard admits to being “sort of discovered” when he played football since they put him to play on the right wing on account of his speed. But football was not to be his métier and he concentrated on athletics.

The truth is that Richard was not a hot shot in athletics when he left Trinidad and Tobago. There was one opportunity to represent the country at Carifta, but he did not on account of an injury. He joined Rebirth Athletic Club and persisted with his running. Richard’s story is one of perseverance. That’s why his coach at LSU could say at the end of Richard’s sterling career at LSU: “I don’t think anybody, including Richard, could have imagined that he would reach this level of performance in four years.”

Richard feels a special attachment to LSU because it was there that he blossomed into a world class sprinter. But he is able to separate his loyalties. “When I’m out there I’m representing Trinidad and Tobago and I have to wear red, white, and black, their colours. But at the same time I always represent LSU with whatever I do,” he says unabashedly.

The year after the Olympics, the World Championships beckoned in Berlin. Richard was out to demonstrate to doubters that his silver medal in Beijing was no flash-in-the-pan exercise. He started his training for a return bout with Bolt and other speed merchants, but things did not work out as expected as he was involved in a vehicular accident in early January. This set back his preparations for the season in which he did not register a sub 10 timing until the semi-final at the World Championships. He breathed a sigh of relief because he thought he had forgotten how to run a sub10 100m. In the 2010 season he did two windy sub tens but all his other runs exceeded the 10-second mark.

Although Thompson did not have two sterling seasons, there is no serious cause for concern. An athlete never forgets how to run fast unless he is in decline, has muscle problems, or receives a setback in training. The year 2011 will be an important one for him since it will give some indication of his performances in Olympic year. Richard is destined to run several sub tens in his career since his body has already become attuned to the speed. His Trinidad and Tobago coach, Ashwin Creed, divulged three characteristics about Thompson: he reads about his sport; he asks questions and is willing to learn; and he has the killer instinct. Sounds like the ultimate prerequisites for further success.

Both LSU and the land of his birth have rewarded Richard’s achievements and his consistency. At LSU he was a four-time NCAA champion, five-time Southeast Conference champion, 2008 NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track Athlete of the Year, and 2008 Men’s SEC Outdoor Track Athlete of the Year. The NAAA of Trinidad and Tobago named him Athlete of the Year and he was awarded the Chaconia Gold medal, along with the relay team, for his accomplishments. The senior Thompson was philosophical when told that his son was going to be awarded the nation’s second highest medal of honour. He believed that whatever one does in the field of sport for one’s country, should be for personal satisfaction, not with the hope of receiving anything in return.

Thompson has become an instant celebrity in Trinidad and Tobago and the calypsonian, The Original De Fosto, has written a song in tribute to the Olympic medallist, aptly entitled ‘We Silver Hero.’ At age 25, Richard will be in his prime for the next Olympics in London. He will not be lolling around until 2012 and has already joined the professional ranks. He signed a lucrative multi-year deal with Nike which his representative described as “the most lucrative for a Caribbean athlete in any sport.” That means that the hard-working Richard will be persevering once more to put his best foot forward. But his diet will not be so rigid to prevent him from enjoying his favourite dish every so often—macaroni pie, stew chicken, callalloo and roast beef. Sounds like a meal for an Olympic champion.

On Tuesday (August 7), we feature Wendell Mottley.
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