Ken Matthews: 1934-2019

England Athletics are saddened to learn that GB’s last surviving Olympic race walking Gold medallist (1964 Tokyo) Ken Matthews died recently.

Octogenarian Ken in his time was an Olympic Champion, European Champion, many times’ National Champion and also many times a Midlands Champion – and a regular supporter of County Championships and Open events all over the County. In his athletics career Ken was Midlands’ based, and a loyal member of Royal Sutton Coldfield Walking Club. Ken was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2011 and attended the event on a number of years after that as a VIP guest.

Below is his nomination text from our Hall of Fame event:

British walkers have been responsible for many international triumphs, but none has been quite as successful as Ken Matthews. He won four of his five major international tests at 20 kilometres: the European title in 1962, the first two finals of the Lugano Trophy in 1961 and 1963 where he led Britain to victory in what was in effect the world team championship each time, and the coveted Olympic gold medal in Tokyo in 1964. The only blot on his record came at the 1960 Rome Olympics. There he fell victim to a combination of the aftereffects of ‘flu, his own ruthless pace and the searing heat, the result being that he collapsed and was taken to hospital.

He began his walking career at 18, following in the footsteps of his father Joe, a founder member of the Royal Sutton Coldfield Walking Club and himself a long distance walking participant. It was Joe who coached his son, later on with help from 1936 Olympic 50 kilometres walk champion Harold Whitlock, himself an inductee this into the Hall of Fame.

Not only did he capture the first of 17 national titles in 1959 but that year he set an unofficial world record of 34:26.6 for 5 miles, a time he reduced to 34:21.2 the following season. Apart from his Olympic misadventure 1960 was a notable year for him as he also produced British records at 10,000m (42:35.6), 7 miles (48:53.0), one hour (13,805m) and 20 kilometres (1:28:15). Such was his versatility that between 1964 and 1971 he held every British record from 5 miles to two hours, including a world best of 69:40.6 for 10 miles in 1964. The glorious peak of his career came in Tokyo where he decimated the best the world could offer to win the Olympic 20 kilometres title by a huge margin in the Olympic record time of 1:29:34. Matthews had sometimes been criticised for his extravagant speed in the early stages of his races, but on this occasion his judgement was flawless. He took the lead just before the 5 kilometres mark, was 24 seconds clear at halfway, 53 seconds ahead at 15 kilometres and had built up an advantage of no less than 1 minute and 40 seconds by the finish. The 5 kilometre splits were 22:19, 22:04, 22:29 and 22:42 … marvellously controlled speed walking.

That walkers were still unfairly regarded as second class citizens in the world of athletics became apparent when Britain’s other three gold medallists from Tokyo – Lynn Davies, Mary Rand and Ann Packer – very quickly featured in the Queen’s Honours List and it wasn’t until 13 years later that, following a campaign organised by the Race Walking Association, Matthews at last received his richly deserved MBE.


His funeral will take place on Monday 1 July at 1pm in Wrexham Methodist Church, 37 Regent Street, Wrexham.  Wales.  LL11 1RY. Following the service there is to be a private family burial.  Afterwards the family will return to the Methodist Church for a post service gathering with refreshments.

Photo by Mark Shearman