Olympic silver medallist and European champion in the 1960s has passed away after falling ill with coronavirus
As a four-time Olympian, European champion and Olympic silver medallist, Paul Nihill earned a reputation as one of the all-time greats of race walking. So the sport is in mourning this week after his death on Tuesday (December 15) aged 81 from coronavirus.
Nihill was one of Britain’s leading race walkers during a golden era for the discipline in the 1960s. He did not quite reach the same pinnacle of Olympic victory that team-mates Don Thompson and Ken Matthews enjoyed, but Nihill came within a mere 19 seconds of the winner, Abdon Parmich of Italy, when finishing runner-up in the 50km walk (pictured below) at the 1964 Games in Tokyo.
In all, Nihill competed at the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Games over that most gruelling of distances (plus 20km too in 1972). In addition, at the shorter 20km event he captured the European title in Athens in 1969 before later earning bronze in Helsinki 1971 and then, finally, competing in his fourth Olympics in 1976 – performances that earned him a place on the cover of AW during that era.
He holds the accolade of being the first British male track and field athlete to compete in four Olympic Games. Such was his ability, he set a world 20km record of 84:50 as well in 1972 on the Isle of Man and won multiple British titles. In his latter years, meanwhile, he competed into his 70s and was a regular letter writer to our magazine.
Born in Colchester on September 5 in 1939 as Vincent Paul Nihill just days after the start of World War II, he had a tough childhood. He moved to Croydon at an early age and spent time in an orphanage from the age of two and subsequently various convent care homes as his mother struggled to make ends meet. At times it was a brutal existence and he remembers being beaten by nuns in one of the homes. But during his teenage years he began to show talent as a runner and boxer.
Leaving school at 15, he went to work in a grocery and a knee injury acted as a catalyst for his walking career because he struggled to run for a while. Aged 18 he answered an athletics club advert in a newspaper which asked “can you walk five miles in an hour?” – and soon afterwards his fledgling race walking career began.
The 1950s were an unhappy period as he had a short stint in the army and suffered depression and mental health issues. He was naturally a loner, too, completing hundreds of miles per week in training as he worked his way up the race walking ladder representing Surrey Walking Club.
Race walking was enjoying a golden period in Britain and, as Matthews claimed 20km gold at the Tokyo Games, Nihill won the silver after a duel with the Yugoslavian-born Pamich where both athletes broke the world best for the 50km distance. The Briton was leading at 40km, too, while Pamich behind briefly stopped to vomit. Nihill later reflected that if he had known Pamich was being sick, the result might have been different, but he was oblivious to his rival’s problems and Pamich later overtook him to claim victory.
Nihill would not scale the same heights in Mexico 1968 or Munich 1972 but at the 1969 European Champs he was one of five British champions alongside middle-distance runners Lillian Board, John Whetton and Ian Stewart, plus marathoner Ron Hill.
Nihill clocked 90:48 for 20km as he held off Leonida Caraiosifoglu by 18 seconds in the Greek capital to take gold.
“My great reward in athletics was not financial, but it was seeing the world,” Nihill once said. “Up to the age of 23 I’d never been abroad but I went to the Olympics in Tokyo and then Mexico and many other places, which was fantastic.
“Back then we used to sit at the same table in a canteen eating meals in an Olympic village with some of the superstars of world sport too. They were innocent days.
“At the Tokyo Olympics for example there were bicycles you could borrow to ride around the village. You’d simply jump on a bike if you saw one as they were lying around everywhere and on one occasion I got on a bike and Joe Frazier, the boxer, suddenly appeared. He shouted ‘hey, that’s mine!’ And I probably cycled off at 100mph. They were great days!”
After his turbulent youth it was good to see that he had three children and was awarded the MBE. In recent years he lived in Kent and kept close links with both athletics and boxing being, among other things, president of the Race Walking Association.
A colourful and popular character, he even presented a radio show on 1950s rock ‘n’ roll music. Sadly, however, the final months of his life were spent in a nursing home with dementia.
To raise money for the home some members of his family walked 50km last Sunday. They had hoped Nihill would join them for the final mile, but he was too ill and his long and successful life came to an end at Medway Maritime Hospital on Tuesday morning.