Long walk into history

Chris Maddocks is heading for his fifth Olympics. Yet he remains unknown
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The Independent Online

In the window of the Harwell Veterinary Centre in Plymouth there is an advert for Yellow Pages with an illustration of someone letting their fingers do the walking. Chris Maddocks, who works in the clinic inside and lives in the flat upstairs, prefers to let his feet do the walking for him. They have taken him to the very brink of Olympic history.

No male British athlete has ever competed in five Olympic Games. At 43, Maddocks is a veteran of four. The veterinary assistant will be going through his paces in the European Athletics Association race-walking grand prix at Leamington Spa today - the first world-class race-walking event held in Britain for 15 years - with a qualifying time for the Sydney Olympics already to his name.

Last month the Devon man (Tiverton-born, Exeter-educated and a Plymouth resident for 14 years) won the Dutch 50km championship race at Sint-Odenrode near Eindhoven in 3hr 57min 10sec. It was the fastest time by a British walker for five years, and 2min 50sec inside the standard set for Sydney. As the only British walker with a qualifying performance, his selection - due to be rubber-stamped on 20 June - would seem to be assured. Sadly, though, for someone on the threshold of such a momentous achievement (Tessa Sanderson competed in six Olym-pics, but no male British track and field athlete has appeared in more than four), Maddocks is far from assured of the recognition he deserves.

It is his misfortune that race walking happens to be regarded in these shores as a less than serious sport. "There have even been people asking whether walking still has a place on the athletics programme," Maddocks said, surrounded by race-walking mem- orabilia - photographs, trophies and championship accreditation tags - in his cluttered but cosy flat. "That really disappoints me: the fact that it's even discussed.

"If people would turn up and watch, or if television would show a race, I think walking in Britain would be seen in a different light. Walking has a much higher profile in other countries. There are walking superstars in some countries and if you go to somewhere like Italy to compete you'll get huge crowds lining the streets to watch."

Victoria Park in Leamington Spa is unlikely to be seething with spectators today, when Maddocks competes in the 20km race for Britain. There was a time, though, when competitive walking gripped the imagination of the Great British Public. Back in 1809 some 10,000 folk flocked to Newmarket Heath to watch the Scottish landowner Captain Robert Barclay-Allardice perform the landmark endurance feat of walking 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours.

"I love the Captain Barclay story and all the history that goes with walking," Maddocks said. "It's another reason why I passionately believe in walking as an athletics event. I also love everything that walking stands for today: that in order to be a top-class walker you need to be a supreme athlete. Some of the top athletes at the Olympics will be race walkers."

That much was made clear to sceptics on the running side of the tracks in 1989 when Martin Rush, an international walking colleague of Maddocks at the time, won one of Britain's premier road races, the Brampton to Carlisle 10-mile event, clocking 49min 06sec and beating Charlie Spedding, the 1984 Olympic marathon bronze-medallist. "He was definitely lifting," Spedding said when informed that the runner who had finished four seconds ahead of him was in fact a walker.

Maddocks himself started his competitive athletics life as a promising cross-country runner, and reckons he could have become a useful marathon man. Instead, thanks to countless hours of training on the roads and paths around Plymouth and three weekly gym sessions, he has notched a marathon list of credits as a race walker - fourth place in the 30km race in the 1986 Commonwealth Games, a 50km British record of 3hr 51min 37sec (18 minutes quicker than the best time recorded by Don Thompson, who struck gold for Britain at the 1960 Olympics) and four Olympic appearances (16th in the 50km event in 1984, 24th in the 20km in 1988, 16th in the 20km in 1992 and 34th in the 50km in 1996).

Maddocks also achieved a notable feat at the 1987 World Championships in Rome, when he came between two Olympic sprint champions and an almighty scrap. He was caught in the crossfire when Linford Christie banged on his door late one night and confronted his room-mate, Allan Wells, about the disputed running order of the British 4 x 100m relay team. "I was stuck in the middle trying to be the peacemaker," Maddocks recalled. "Fortunately, they never actually came to blows."

Maddocks would be a five-time Olympian already had he not been controversially overlooked for the 1980 Games in Moscow, despite having broken the British 50km record. He pointedly broke the record again a month after the Games and then went into "semi-retirement" for two-and-a-half years. It remains the biggest disappointment of his walking career, but not the only one.

Though grateful for the help he has received on his doorstep, in particular from Ed Shillabear, his boss, landlord, friend and fellow walker, Maddocks will hang up his racing shoes frustrated that he never quite took on the rest of the world on even terms. "I've always felt that if there had been the kind of support system in Britain that there is in other countries, in terms of warm-weather training, acclimatisation and so on, I could have gone to major championships to challenge for medals.

"I strongly believe that, but I don't really want to harp on about it now. I've got a chance of a little piece of history and it's incredibly important to me that after a long career in athletics - it might not have been the most high-profile - I'm going to leave a little legacy which I can justifiably feel quite proud of."

They're patently proud of him in Plymouth too. A few Saturdays ago, when Maddocks was performing an early-morning training session on a course he uses around Home Park, a group of Argyle supporters waiting to depart on a long-haul away trip cheered and applauded him on every lap. Down in Devon, they clearly know a trailblazing Olympian when they see one.