What do two great Olympic champions and a postman from a picturesque town in the South of England have in common? The answer: They each competed in five Olympic Games and they are, without doubt, the greatest exponents of their respective sports that the British Isles have ever produced. However, while Sir Steve Redgrave in rowing and Sir Ben Ainslie in yachting have nine gold medals between them, postman Chris Maddocks is perhaps most famous for coming last in his chosen sport. Finishing last in front of 100,000 people at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney may seem like abject failure, however, there is more to the story.
Maddocks’ chosen sport is the 50km walk; surely a sport that can trace its roots to the Spanish inquisition. If ever a sport was designed for torture, this is the one. Maddocks’ most famous moment came 16 years ago in, what turned out to be, his final race. The British record holder finished a full hour behind the winner. Yes! A full hour! All the other competitors had shaved, showered, shampooed,and decided to take a more leisurely stroll whilst enjoying the Sydney night life. So what was it all about? Upon further research there is more to the story. “I was a good athlete and I was Olympic standard, I was just injured” concedes Chris Maddocks “I just did the best I could on the day and I was in trouble from the very first step,” he remembers of his final race. Just seven weeks before his departure down under, Maddocks had torn a muscle in his buttocks while in final preparation for the games. “I was in great shape in the lead up to Sydney; I’d qualified by winning a race in Holland in the March of that year.” On 29 September 2000, the race day, Maddocks doubted if he could make the five laps around the track at Stadium Australia, let alone the 31 miles around Sydney’s streets. He had been advised not to make the trip. However, Olympic walking is largely unknown in the U.K and the pool of talent is very thin. “If I was keeping anyone out of the team, maybe I would have pulled out and a reserve could have come in, but that wasn’t the case, it was either me or no-one, and I saw no point in having no-one on the line.”
But as he toiled in the Australian sun, dropping further and further behind, little did he know that his progress was being followed by those inside the stadium via the big screens. “The stewards and one or two supporters were saying it’d be worth it, but I thought it was more sympathy to keep me going,” he said “I was so far behind I reasonably assumed there’d be no-one in the stadium, but I wheeled up onto the track and there was an absolute wall of sound. What I didn’t realize was that my painful progress had been followed on the big screens in the stadium and people had stayed behind from the morning session to see me finish.” It is a story that only the Olympics seem to produce.
Having missed out on selection for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, when Britain sent a smaller squad than usual; other countries boycotted the Games in protest of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Does that have a familiar ring about it? Maddocks made his debut in Los Angeles four years later in 1984 coming in 16th, He twice finished 16th at the Olympics – on his debut in the 50km walk and eight years later in the 20km event in Barcelona ’92. In Seoul ’88 he came 24th, in Atlanta ’96 he finished 34th, four years before his epic finale. The numbers may not seem impressive to the casual reader. However, it’s worth noting that Maddocks’s, now 59 and fast walking to retirement, British record mark of 3 hours 51 minutes and 57 seconds for the 50km still stands to this day, nearly 26 years after it was set, while his 20km record was only broken three months ago, having stood for 28 years. This is hardly the stuff of failure.
What now for the postman from Devon? “I get paid for covering a lot of ground,” he told BBC Sport in a recent interview. “It’s at a lot slower pace, so I’m not the fastest postman delivering the Royal mail, but it probably prevents me from becoming incredibly fat, so it has its bonuses.”
And there is more; surprisingly a call came from the U.S.A. “I was honored in 2011 to be approached by NBC who were interested in me commentating for them on the three Olympic walks (at London 2012).”I must have done a good job as they came calling again recently and they wanted me to do the same role as co-commentator and expert analysis for the recent Rio Olympics, so for me that’s a fantastic way to stay involved at the highest level with the sport that I love.” The Olympic games are always littered with stories of success, gold medals, broken records and epic victories, but sometimes its’ the little human stories that make it worth the while.