Olympic walker Vincent Paul Nihill died aged 81 on the 15 December 2020 in a care home, but as a competitive athlete he was among the very best race walkers in the world. For much of his life he lived in Addiscombe, Croydon and in 2016 a road was named after him – Nihill Place – by Croydon Council in recognition of all his achievements. Paul was involved with helping with boxing and other sports, at sports clubs in the region and was even a presenter on a local radio station at one time.
Going back to when he was young, Paul had some very tough times, and even spent time in an orphanage. However, when he was eight years old, he did his first race on grass and won over 60m. Paul, who left school at 15 to join a grocers, was a senior in a bank when I first talked to him in 1969 in Athens and then at his home in the Croydon/Thornton Heath area.
He made some interesting observations telling me: “The greatest lesson I have learnt really is the fact that you never get anywhere unless you put your mind to it, one hundred percent, to that one thing. I feel now that, when, years ago I was doing mainly boxing plus a little running, a little walking and several other things, had I gone about my training in the same way that I do now, dedicating myself to walking and to making a success of it, I would have been a top junior. So many people just play around with a sport when, as runners they could probably become ‘Derek Ibbotson’ if only that they put their minds to it, trained more conscientiously, and realised their potential. To me it is strange that when I was doing walking just to fill a gap, nobody gave me any encouragement. Nobody came up to me and said ‘you could be a world beater if you put your mind to it’, or offered to take me in hand. Nobody cared, and I just drifted out as it were, finishing usually in the middle of the field doing nothing outstanding.”
GB won the individual gold medal in the 50km race walk in the 1932 Olympics with Tommy Green and in 1936 with Harold Whitlock and then with Don Thompson in 1960. The next athlete to obtain an Olympic medal for GB over the 50km distance was Paul Nihill, winning silver in the 1964 Tokyo games; since then no one else for GB has obtained an Olympic medal in that event. The first three in the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 were: 1 Abdon Pamich Italy 4:11.12.4; 2 Paul Nihill (GB—who moved up to be with Pamich at the 30k distance till 40k}, 4:11.31.2; 3 Ingvar Pettersson (Sweden 4:14.17.4).
In 1965 after the ‘anti-climax’ of the of the Tokyo Olympic Games Paul had a series of tremendous setbacks. He told me: “Tokyo for me was certainly an anti-climax; I had trouble with my job, problems at home – nothing seemed to go right at all. I could not, of course, concentrate on training and in fact lost all enjoyment in the sport. I found it a strain and was really just going through the motions, because I had to. I was the Olympic silver medalist and therefore it was the thing to continue racing even though I was most unhappy; and, as a result of all the pressures building-up, I had a breakdown and had to withdraw altogether. Later I came back again, but I still did not seem to be fully recovered. I trained for a few months again, and then dropped out once more. It was rather like going back to a bad job that you have got to do; trying harder each day, getting nowhere, and cursing your luck for trying. Now, however, I am happy. My frame of mind has changed completely, and I see it all in quite a different light.”
When I talked to Paul after his fantastic Athens 1969 European gold medal he told me: “This year has been very similar to last in that I have been fed much better competition. In 1968, before the Olympic Games, I did not have many international races, and therefore, the actual class of my opponents was not too impressive, but this year I was sent to France in May to the six-Nations meeting and met the fifth and sixth finishers in Mexico 20 km, Gerhard Sperling of East Germany and Otto Barch of the Soviet Union, most formidable opponents. I beat them easily (when it was 80 degrees F) which I regarded as a great victory, not least because many people say that I am ‘suspect’ in hot weather since passing-out in Mexico. Here, though, I had taken on the cream of six countries in very hot conditions, including the West German Bernar Nermerich, the fastest 50 km walker in 1968, and beaten them all in this 20 km event. Then I went to Czechoslovakia and won again.”
“After this I had the big meeting in Los Angeles and raced for the Commonwealth against U.S.A and the U.S.S.R. Here I had to race against the Mexico Olympic 20 km Champion Vladimir Golubnichy and the bronze medalist Nikolay Smaga, plus Ron Laird (U.S.A.) one of the World’s top 5; I beat all three, whom I knew very well, to win. After I had beaten an Olympic Champion and these other top liners, I thought ‘you have beaten the best in the world, so why not do it again in two months’ time?’”
About his win in Athens, Paul told me: “The walk in Athens went perfectly to plan. I talked over the possibilities with all my friends beforehand, and it was generally agreed that it would be a highly tactical race. Whatever pace was set by any leaders, whether very fast or very slow, I would go with them, and would not attempt to drop anybody at least till the three quarters mark at 15km. At that stage I would have two or three walkers with me, and drop them one by one. It is very, very rare that you can plan before a race just what you are going to do, and for it all to fit into place with the pre-race plan. This time, however, everything went as according to plan.”
1969 Athens European Championships 20 km race first 3: 1 Paul Nihill (GB) 1:30:48.0; 2 L. Caraiosifoglu (Romania) 1:31:06.4; 3 N. Smaga (USSR) 1:31.20.2.
Paul Nihill also gained a bronze medal in the 20km in the European Championships in Helsinki in 1971 behind Smaga and Sperling. In the 1972 Munich Olympics Paul was 6th in the 20 km race and 9th in the 50 km race and then 30th in the 1976 Olympics over 20k in Montreal - still competitive but, not the fantastic winner of the 1960’s.
I will remember Paul Nihill as a nice fellow with a strong will as an athlete and someone to be admired.