Dave Moorcroft, the Coventry Godiva Harriers athlete who set the world 5,000m record in 1981 was coached by John Anderson, who also helped many of the UK’s leading blind and partially sighted athletes during the 1980s.
John went onto be famous, years later, as the referee in Gladiators with his catchphrase ‘Gladiators Ready!’ but it was back in his coaching days that one athlete stood out from the rest, and he was Bob Matthews.
Bob was a talented athlete with the capacity for hard work and a good racing brain, so those abilities enabled him to win some big championship races, and run fast times. But it was much more than Bob’s athletic abilities that really impressed me as his friend and 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.
Obviously, the most important thing for the guide runner is to be able to run as fast as the athlete and never cross the finish line ahead of them, whatever happens. But I made that fundamental mistake in one of our early races together and got Bob disqualified from winning the UK 800m Championship.
Straight afterwards, rather than being angry with me, he said, ‘look Tim. I know you’ve never won a UK Champs before or got remotely close with the likes of Coe, Ovett and Cram thrashing you every race but just cos you out-dipped me here, it doesn’t mean you’ve won one now, either! He joked some more about it, then said ‘Ok, I’ll forgive you, as long as you buy the beers when we get back home’.
Bob enjoyed himself away from athletics and was a big fan of Chelsea FC, so we went to watch them play against Coventry City with his coach, Eamonn Kelly. Bob would usually ‘watch’ a game at home, listening to the radio or TV but he relished going to watch a live game where he could immerse himself in the atmosphere. And on this occasion, he’d be able to listen to the commentary too, of Eamonn and I, sat either side of him, as to what was happening on the pitch.
Well, he didn’t last long in listening to our commentary because after ten minutes he said, ‘boys...I know you’re both Cov fans, but you’re commentary is so biased that I can’t see what’s really going on! You’re useless, I’m sticking my headphones on!’.
So with that, he listened to the rest of the game on the radio but still enjoyed some good half-time banter and a pint with us.
There’d been certain times training together that I’d marvelled at the way Bob dealt with his lack of sight and used it in a positive way to achieve things that I couldn’t do as a sighted person.
On Sundays we used to do an hour steady training run around the smooth, flat, playing fields of Warwick School with Bob’s guide dog, Quando, running free.
As we were lapping round one day, I saw Quando in the distance, bent down, nuzzling into the bottom of the thin rope nets around the grass tennis courts. There was a baby rabbit caught in a tangled mess, with its legs and body all wrapped up in the rope. We stopped, I told Bob what had happened and then I bent down to free the rabbit. 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, and just as I was getting there, I saw Bob crouched down in front of it and suddenly, the rabbit leapt free. Yes, Bob had freed the rabbit. He’d just slowly and logically felt his way round the problem, and untangled the rope, which was something a sighted man, like me, certainly couldn’t do or thought I couldn’t 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.
A European Championships 1500 metres race in Lisbon was one where I learned that Bob’s lack of sight could also hold him back, psychologically, at times, but not enough to prevent him from becoming a champion.
When we were warming up I could see that Bob was the supreme athlete there, with the others being under-trained and ill-prepared in my opinion. But all Bob knew was that he was in the final of the European Championship 1500m, a huge race, and massive occasion for him, that he’d been training hard for, for a long, long time. And because he was not blessed with much self-confidence, he nervously started talking about all his great rivals from Spain and Portugal, so I had to reassure him that he was the man to beat.
Had Bob been able to see what I could see, he’d have had much more confidence and been eager for the gun to go. Though when it did, he was transformed and we went off really well, with me now taking on the role of not just the guide-runner but the commentator, too, because otherwise a blind man doesn’t know where he is in the race, or exactly what to do, and when. But as the race went on, Bob was running stronger and stronger until we moved on to the shoulder of the leader, his main rival, at the bell. That noise, the ringing of the last-lap bell is always a boost for any athlete but is maybe more so for a blind athlete with the way their senses are developed, because it certainly acted like an electric shock to Bob. The way he just kicked and took off, with a lap to go was mightily impressive. He hit the front down the back straight and kept piling it on all the way round the final bend to power home down the final straight and win the European 1500 metres Championships. Another significant win in the glittering career of Bob Matthews, MBE.