Paul Nihill, a Croydon Olympic hero, has died. He was 81. Living in a nursing home in Kent, Nihill had fallen ill with coronavirus.
Nihill won the silver medal in the 50km walk at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, on his Games debut.
His death came just days after the International Olympic Committee decided, controversially, to remove the men’s 50km walk – the longest event on the athletics programme – from the schedule for the 2024 Games to be staged in Paris.
According to Athletics Weekly, last Sunday some members of his family walked 50km to raise money for his nursing home, and they had hoped that Nihill, though frail and suffering the effects of dementia, might be able to join them for the final mile.
In the event, Nihill was just too ill, and his life came to an end at Medway Maritime Hospital on Tuesday morning.
After Tokyo in 1964, Nihill competed at another three Games: Mexico City in 1968, Munich in 1972 and, at the age of 37, Montreal in 1976, making him the first British male track and field athlete to be selected for four Olympics.
In 1969, he won the European championship 20km walk gold medal in Athens.
Nihill continued to train and compete into his 70s, and in 2016 he was honoured by Croydon Council when he had a road in Addiscombe, near where he had lived for much of his life, named after him. Croydon being Croydon, they decided to call the residential cul-de-sac “Nihill Place”. “Nihill Walk” might have been more fitting.
“I absolutely love Croydon and Addiscombe,” Nihill said at the time.
Nihill enjoyed an outstanding, record-breaking athletics career. Between 1967 and 1970, Nihill won 85 of his 86 walking races, his only defeat coming in the Olympic 50km at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, when in the thin air of the high altitude he pushed himself to a standstill, collapsing within four miles of the finish.
Four years earlier, it had taken a world record to beat him in Tokyo, when after racing for more than 30 miles, the Croydon walker finished just 19sec behind the gold medallist, Italy’s Abdon Parmich. Nihill, too, had finished faster than the previous record, after he had set an unrelenting pace to within five miles of the finish in the Olympic Stadium.
At 20km, as well as his European title, he won European bronze in 1971 and set a world record of his own in 1972, 1hr 24min 50sec. To this day, nearly half a century later, only 14 Britons have ever walked 20km quicker.
Brought up in Addiscombe, Nihill attended Davidson School and joined a boys’ club at the Sir Philp Game Centre when – together with another notable Croydon contemporary, Roy Hudd – he took part in a range of sports, including football, cricket, boxing and some athletics.
Nihill continued to call Croydon “my home” for years after he moved away, and in 2006 he visited the centre shortly after its new building was opened.
“He had a great appreciation of the value of youth work, based on his own boyhood experiences,” one old friend told Inside Croydon.
Being born on September 5, 1939, just days after world war broke out, Nihill would endure a tough childhood of bombing raids, evacuation and, for almost a decade after the war ended in 1945, rationing of even the most basic foods and necessities.
When he was two, his mother placed him in an orphanage, and he grew up in convent care homes as his mother struggled to make ends meet. In later years, he recalled being beaten by the nuns in one of the homes.
It was at the local youth centre in Addiscombe that Nihill’s talents for athletics and boxing were spotted.
Leaving school at 15, he worked at a grocers’ shop. He was, for a time, homeless.
He injured his knee and had his patella removed, which left him unable to run. So he started race walking. Aged 18, he answered an athletics club advert in a newspaper which asked “Can you walk five miles in an hour?”
“I did a race and came second,” Nihill recalled. His race walking career had begun.
Nihill once said, “My great reward in athletics was not financial, but it was seeing the world. 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!”
As well as having a Croydon street named after him, Nihill was also awarded the MBE for services to athletics.
- Listen to a long, and sometimes harrowing, interview with Paul Nihill, talking about his upbringing in wartime Croydon, his life as a young man and his development into an international race walker here
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