British race walker Paul Nihill (© Getty Images)
World Athletics is deeply saddened by the news that Paul Nihill, the 1964 Olympic silver medallist in the 50km race walk, died on Tuesday (15) from the Coronavirus at a nursing in Kent, England. Nihill, a four-time Olympian and European champion over the 20km distance, was 81.
Born in the southeast English town of Colchester in 1939, just days before the outbreak of the second World War, Nihill had a difficult childhood, spending time in an orphanage and in convent care as his mother struggled to provide for her young son.
He left school at 15, but remained interested in sport, eventually taking up race walking after suffering a leg injury and answering an athletics club advertisement in a newspaper which asked, "Can you walk five miles in an hour?"
The solitude of heavy training suited him, a passion that led to an eventual Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games in 1964 where he finished second behind Italy's Abdon Pamich, the overwhelming favourite, clocking 4:11:31.2, 19 seconds behind the winner.
Nihill remained one of the world's finest walkers over the distance, winning 85 of 86 races between 1967 and 1970. The lone defeat during that period came at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City where, after walking among the leaders in the early stages, he succumbed to the city's heat and high altitude and collapsed in the 44th kilometre.
He then largely focused on the shorter 20km distance, winning the European title in 1969 and finishing third in 1971. He broke the world record in the event on 30 July 1972, clocking 1:24:50 in a race in Douglas, the capital of Isle of Man. A month late he made his third Olympic appearance, his first over 20km. Third through the midway point in the Munich race, he began to drift back a few kilometres later before finishing sixth, clocking 1:28:44.4. He also competed in the 50km event on 3 September, three days later, where he finished ninth in 4:14:09.4.
He competed at a fourth Olympic Games four years later in Montreal, finishing in 30th place.
Nihill remained active in the sport, competing well into his 70s.
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics