Bob Matthews MBE was one of Britain's most successful Paralympic athletes. Competing in blind middle and long-distance running events he won 8 gold medals across 7 Paralympic Games and broke 22 world records.

Bob Matthews competing at Paralympic Games

Competing at the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games

Early life

Robert Matthews was born on the 26th May, 1961, in Strood, Kent and passed away on the 11th April 2018, in Auckland, New Zealand, after having been diagnosed with a Brain tumour in 2017.

Bob was born with a degenerative eye condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa, which he inherited from his father. The condition caused him to be completely blind in dark environments, with the condition worsening by the age of 11, and by the age of 20, Bob was completely blind.

Bob had been brought up in a family where his Dad’s blindness was never perceived to be a problem. His father had told him that blindness was not the worst thing that could have happened to him and turning to running helped with the fear of losing his sight. He remembered seeing his sister’s blonde hair and his father smoking a pipe but the last image of himself was of a “frightened 15 year old staring back at me in the mirror.”

One of his recollections of his father was watching Gillingham FC play,

This was our special father-son bonding time and we went a number of times when I was 8 years old. Given I still had some useful vision, I would act as Dad’s eyes, trying to identify players and explain what was happening. Although, to be honest, my eyesight was fading by then, and it was a bit of a case of the blind leading the blind.

As his eye condition began to worsen, Bob saw running as an escape and this love of running only grew when he attended college.

Bob wrote in his 2009 autobiography ‘Running Blind’ 

One of the reasons I run is that it is something I’m good at. I feel alive when I run. When I was growing up, failing sight made me feel clumsy and awkward, but when I run I feel tall and graceful and confident

Life as a Paralympic

When he began to lose his sight, Bob began exploring his athletic ability, and whilst attending the Royal National College for the Blind, Hereford, he continued his passion for running, as well as participating in Goalball. 

After college he quickly became known in the sports world. His first experience of the Paralympics was playing Goalball at the 1980 Games in Arnhem, Holland. He then competed in athletics in the New York 1984 Games and the Seoul 1988 Games winning gold medals in the 800, 1500 and 5000 metre races. Between those Games, Bob set a record for a blind runner in the 800 metres. He broke the 2 minute mark for the first time at a track meet in Brighton, winning the 800 metres in 1:59:90.

Bob wrote about this record in his memoirs,

Now I was really on the same playing field as quality sighted athletes and hoped I had their respect as well as their admiration. Had Seb Coe and I set our world records for 800m at the same meeting, I’d have finished just 120M (18 seconds) behind him.

He went on to compete in the Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Games. He won a total of 13 Paralympic medals in his sporting career including 8 golds, 4 silvers and 1 bronze. In addition to his Paralympic victories, he set 22 world records and was the first Paralympian to be appointed an MBE.

In 1994, he married Kath but within 10 years of marriage tragedy struck when she died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. Once more running offered him an outlet and he competed again in the Athens 2004 Games before meeting his second wife, Sarah, on a trip to New Zealand in 2006.

Recollections

In order for Bob to compete he relied on a guide, an athlete to run alongside him, to navigate the track, to enable him to run with confidence and speed. Bob had more than 100 guides, building relationships based on trust.

Matt Lawton, Guide Runner:

Most of his guide runners became lifelong friends but the guy who ran him straight into a lamp post on their first outing together didn’t return for a second session. The poor chap was mortified.

Tim Redman, Guide Runner:

When I started running with Bob, it quickly became apparent to me what a talented man he was and how he’d learned to embrace his blindness in a positive, inspiring and sometimes, amusing way.

…There was a baby rabbit caught in a tangled mess, with its legs and body all wrapped up in the rope…. I worked out the best way to release it and then slowly, methodically, started to unravel the knotted-up rope. But I soon realised that I was getting nowhere as the poor little rabbit was so tightly wrapped up and caught by the rope that I could see that the only way to free it would be by cutting some of the rope. So, I told Bob to wait while I sprinted to the cottage of the caretaker who lent me some scissors to cut the rabbit free. As I ran back with the scissors…. I saw Bob crouched down in front of it and suddenly, the rabbit leapt free…. He had just slowly and logically felt his way round the problem, and untangled the rope, which was something a sighted man, like me, certainly could not do or thought I could not do. The lesson I learnt that day from Bob was that sometimes your sight, your vision and imagination can set limits in what you think you can do and achieve.”

Chris Jones, Chief Executive, English Athletics

Bob’s competitive record is simply phenomenal ranging from being the first blind athlete to run under two minutes for 800m through to claiming silver at the Paralympics over the marathon.

Retirement as a Paralympic athlete

After his retirement from athletic events, Bob turned his attention to cycling, even representing New Zealand, his new home, in cycling events at the London 2012 Games, as well as other International competitions. He would continue to participate in non-Paralympic running events, such as in 2014, when he returned to London to compete in the London Marathon, competing in the race for visually impaired runners (T11-13 Men).

In New Zealand he worked as a sports massage therapist, whilst also making time to be a motivational speaker, even going on to publish his own autobiography, “Running Blind”

Achievements and awards

Paralympic Games

Bob's first Paralympics was the New York 1984 Games, where he participated in three separate track events: the 800m B1, 1500m B1, and the 5000m B1. He go on to compete in five successive Paralympics: Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, and Athens 2004 Games. Bob specialised in long-distance running, and took part in the same three track events for his first four Games, before competing in the 10,000m and Marathon events in his last two Games. Bob is one of the most successful Paralympians in history, having won 29 gold Medals, 15 combined silver and bronze medals, as well as setting 22 World Records.

Bob Matthews winning the 5000m at the World Championships in Assen

Competing in the 5000m at the 1990 World Championships in Assen, Holland where he won gold.

Other awards and recognition

In 1987, Bob was awarded an MBE, in recognition of his contribution to the world of disabled sport. On the 18th October 2014, Bob was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame, for his outstanding achievement and contribution to athletics.

References

  • https://www.paralympic.org/robert-matthews-0
  • https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/disability-sport/43731207
  • https://www.paralympic.org/news/paralympic-champion-bob-matthews-dies-56
  • https://www.nzherald.co.nz/sport/paralympics-the-blind-runner-with-a-crystal-clear-vision/AYBAY4GFVP63WEGXQDWYKB2ONQ/
  • http://www.robmatthewsmbe.net/#
  • https://www.paralympicheritage.org.uk/blog/bob-matthews-mbe-paralympic-athlete
  • https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/sport/other/legendary-kiwi-para-athlete-rob-matthews-dies-aged-56
  • https://athleticsweekly.com/featured/bob-matthews-among-hall-fame-inductees-11962/
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=75&v=sbRjUyOS7IQ&feature=emb_title (Bob Matthews Hall of Fame Presentation- VIDEO)
  • https://www.paralympic.org/news/weir-fired-seventh-london-marathon-title
  • https://www.leamingtoncourier.co.uk/sport/paralympian-matthews-opened-my-eyes-world-possibilities-295708
  • https://www.paralympics.org.uk/articles/bob-matthews-mbe-a-statement-from-the-bpa
  • ‘Running Blind’ by Bob Matthews