Los Angeles — Great Britain's Daley Thompson is favored to become only the second man to successfully defend an Olympic decathlon championship - and with good reason. It's been five years since this multi-talented athlete was beaten in his gruelling specialty, and the way he's been training here it doesn't look as though he has any intention of letting that streak be broken now.
While it never seems quite right to refer to any man as a machine, Thompson comes so finely tuned that once the ignition key has been turned on, the track world seems to get exactly what it expects. To give you an idea of the way he dominates the competition, when he won the gold in Moscow four years ago it was by 164 points over Yuri Kutsenko of the Soviet Union.
Thompson is so huge looking that he is apt to intimidate spectators the first time they see him - not with a sense of fear, but with the wonder that anyone could possibly be so perfectly put together. The shoulders, the legs, the size of the arms suggest a pro football player wearing his pads under his skin. But the eyes are soft and the manner sometimes almost regal.
This is a man who brings enormous self-discipline to his training sessions; who knows himself the same way a stockbroker knows the market; but who has not forgotten how to laugh or have fun with those around him. When Daley competes, it is not so much with the idea of setting records as it is to win. While almost all records are broken eventually, victories become immoveable rivets that permanently fasten a man to his career.
The Olympic decathlon, of course, is much more than a demanding test of physical skills in 10 separate events. It fosters the kind of intense competition where, if the athlete isn't careful, his mind can wind up playing impossible mental games with his body. And the one thing all athletes try to avoid is allowing anyone or any situation to upset their concentration.
The decathlon itself is a two-day event consisting of the 100-meter run, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400-meter run on the first day, followed by the 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, and 1500-meter run on the second day. Contestants are given a minimum of 30 minutes to rest between events.
The versatile Thompson obviously expects to get better at what he already does better than anyone else. One way to discover more of Daley and what he thinks is to read Skip Rozin's book: ''Daley Thompson - The Subject is Winning.'' In it Thompson is quoted at length about his philosophy of life.
For example, in one place he says: ''I'm not interested in the past. People who don't have quite as high aspirations, people who think they have done enough - who have had their moments, tend to reminisce. I haven't had my moment yet. It's not time to look back.''
Originally Daley thought of himself mostly as a sprinter. He was certain that , in time, he could become very proficient at it. It wasn't until some of his friends and a number of track coaches told him that the decathlon was made for him that he began to probe its possibilities.
One thing he did figure out very quickly, though, was that foot speed is extremely important to anyone who wants to get anywhere in the decathlon. So he worked hard at making himself faster in order to improve his scores in the pole vault, discus, and javelin, all of which require unusual balance and footwork. The mental toughness - well, that was always there.
America's Bruce Jenner, who won the decathlon in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, once told me that you train with the idea of getting the most you possibly can from all 10 events, because you can't afford to specialize in any of them.
''I didn't work with regular track coaches to get ready for the decathlon, because I didn't think they had enough answers,'' Jenner explained. ''What I did was train with other top athletes who are specialists in their fields and learned from them. In retrospect, I'd go the same way again.''
Thompson, who has acted as his own coach since 1980, seems to feel much the same way. In fact, several years ago he began to study Jenner's career the way a young major league pitcher might watch Mario Soto to find out how he sets up a hitter.
Recently Daley told Sports Illustrated that his workouts are really multi-practice sessions.
''Because you can't do all the work a sprinter can do, and then all that a 400-meter man would do, and then a 1500 man's workout, too, you try to combine elements from different events in training,'' he said. ''The decathlon makes you more systematic in your approach to life. You tend not to go with just one idea. You get a lot and sort through them.''
Although Thompson, on paper, seems certain to equal Bob Mathias's 1948-52 feat of two consecutive decathlon gold medals, there is always the possibility of an upset either because of injuries or something unforseen. The man with the best chance of challenging him in this year's competition Aug. 8 and 9 is probably Jurgen Hingsen of West Germany, who is strong in the high jump and 1500 -meter run, but has always had trouble matching Daley in the sprints and the pole vault.