Ken Matthews was at the front of most walking races he entered. Two miles, seven miles, 10 miles – he would be up there with Stan Vickers and Don Thompson and the rest of the British race-walking firmament. In 1960, he went to Rome and competed in the 20km walk. But three-quarters of the way through, Matthews’ legs failed. As usual, he was up with the leaders, but then he could walk no more. He sobbed by the side of the road. “Stan Vickers came round and said, ‘Are you all right?’ And I said, ‘Go on! Go on!’ And he got a bronze medal.”
Shaken, Matthews went home to Erdington, on the edge of Birmingham, and the Sutton Coldfield Walking Club. He had learned race walking from his father and developed his long, fluid style, the slightly forward lean that could take him to speeds of 8mph, on the loose running track at Salford Park, where Spaghetti Junction would uncoil in 1972. Matthews entered the same races – club races, national championships – but this time with a fierceness. “I was always looking to beat them, and leave them as far behind as I could.” He set record after record and in 1962 achieved a sort of redemption: winning the European Championships in Belgrade.
His mind turned to Tokyo. “I said to my Dad, ‘These last two years, I’m really going to bomb it hard. I’m going to give myself a thrashing.’” Matthews began to train alone. Since 1957 he had been an electrician’s mate at the local power plant, at Hams Hall. There were three coal-fired power stations, and 800m of road. He clocked off at 5pm, changed into his kangaroo-leather walking shoes, and pounded the site. Circuits for stamina; the straight quarter-of-a-mile line of the coal conveyor belt for speed. In the solitude of the power station, Matthews went for pace rather than style. He built up the power in his legs. After a while he stopped using a stopwatch. “It’s difficult to explain to people: you get the rhythm in your mind. You know if you’re going well or you’re not going well.”
By October 1964, Matthews was going well. The workers at Hams Hall got up a collection and paid for his wife, Sheila, a dancing teacher, to fly out to Tokyo and watch him race. This time the 20km walk took place on a large, oval concrete circuit outside the main stadium. A group led off quickly, with Matthews just behind. The leaders were warned for lifting – in race walking one foot must be on the ground at all times – and Matthews sensed that they would slacken their speed as a result. “I felt them ease off,” he said. “Matthews didn’t ease off.”
Within a lap or two, he was ahead. Out on his own, in his rhythm, Matthews took in his surroundings: the cloudless blue sky; the tiny figures looking down from the rim of the stadium; a patch of sand, spread across the road; Sheila somewhere. By the time he headed into the stadium and towards the finish line, Matthews was so far ahead he had the place to himself. He raised an arm to the crowd. He set an Olympic record. Sheila was there. She had found her way through a little door and on to the track. “No one had ever done that before,” he said. They embraced. “It was good. Yes, it was good.”
Back home, Britain’s three other gold medallists from the Games got MBEs. Matthews was offered a job running the sports department of a shop in Wrexham. (He got his MBE, after a public campaign, in 1977). He and Sheila swapped Birmingham for north Wales. “I sometimes feel a bit guilty about upping and leaving them all,” he says now, almost 50 years later. He is still spry, still elegant on the move. “I had my success and left them all. But you have to take your chance. I never got paid for my race walking.”