Paul Nihill, who has died aged 81 from complications related to Covid-19, came from a generation that put the UK among the elite race walking nations. They competed with a style that showed unquestionably that their art was walking, with one foot seen to be in contact with the ground at all times.
In the UK he won 96 consecutive races between 1967 and 1971. Worldwide, in his 86 races between 1967 and 1970 he was defeated only once, when the heat and altitude at the 1968 Mexico Olympics caused him to collapse and drop out at the 44km mark during the 50km event.
He was the first British male athlete to compete in four Olympic Games consecutively – in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976. In 1972 he broke the 20km world record. He claimed 27 AAA (Amateur Athletic Association) titles as well as many more RWA (Race Walking Association) championship titles between 1963 and 1975. He was European 20km champion in 1969 and took the bronze in 1972.
Paul regarded the 1964 50km race at the Tokyo Olympics as one of his greatest performances, when he came in second to Abdon Pamich of Italy. At the finish there were just seconds between them and both broke the old world record, with the first 12 finishers breaking the Olympic record. Another good showing, in 1969, came when he won a Commonwealth vs USA vs USSR 20km event in Los Angeles, defeating the Olympic 20km champion Vladimir Golubnichiy and bronze medallist Nikolai Smaga. He is ranked as one of the all-time great British athletes and in 1976 was appointed MBE.
His achievements are all the more remarkable when measured against his troubled childhood and adolescence. He was born in Colchester, Essex, into a poor and chaotic family, the son of Margaret Kingston, an artist, and Martin Nihill, a newsagent, and grew up in Croydon, Surrey, where he lived for most of his life. Paul had two half-brothers, Andre and Alan, and a sister, Wendy, who was given up for adoption. As a two-year-old, Paul was placed in an orphanage. He was abused as a nine-year-old at a convent school and was eventually returned to his mother’s care a year later.
As a teenager his love of sport was fostered by a boy’s club, but his difficulties persisted. He had no secure place to live at 17 and joined the army in desperation. He was ill-suited to army life, which led to self-harm and an early release from uniform. For a time any hope of continuing active sport was in question as he suffered from severe leg pain; this was eventually resolved by the removal of a knee-cap.
He at last settled down into civilian life, married Joan Earl in 1964 and brought up three children, Tony, Clare and Vincent. Paul began his sporting career as a boxer and he ran for a while, but then he found his niche with the Surrey Walking Club. His various employers – he worked for GEC, British Rail and Lloyd’s Bank – were sympathetic to his athletic career and he was able to get additional time off for international events.
When I joined the Surrey Walking Club as a novice race walker in 1968, Paul was the undisputed king of the road in British race walking. He remained an amateur of the old school, with scant regard for the top-level race walkers of recent years, viewing them as little more than straight-legged runners.
Apart from his family, Paul’s great love was for rock’n’roll and he was an Elvis Presley fan. For a time he presented a regular show on BBC Radio Medway featuring 1950s rock’n’roll music. He maintained his links with Croydon becoming very knowledgable about its buildings and history.
Paul’s marriage to Joan ended in divorce. In 1990 he married Pauline Pilcher. They separated in 2009. He is survived by his children, six grandchildren and a great-grandchild, and by Andre and Wendy.
• Vincent Paul Nihill, race walker, born 5 September 1939; died 15 December 2020