Cecil Matthews was known as “the Nurmi of the Empire” after his brilliant running at the 1938 Sydney Empire Games. In the athletics world, there could have been no higher praise. Paavo Nurmi was a wonderful Finnish distance athlete who won 12 Olympic medals - nine gold, three silver - between 1920 and 1928. Some still say he was the greatest distance runner ever.
Matthews, born in Christchurch in 1914, won both the three-mile and six-mile events in Sydney in decisive fashion - not bad for a runner whose selection was in doubt beforehand.
Growing up in Christchurch, he showed great promise as a junior athlete, running the mile in 4min 29s while still at school. He won his first national senior title in 1936, when he ran a brilliant three-mile race in Dunedin. He beat the well-performed Bill Pullar by 200 yards to win in 14min 41.6s, enough to earn him selection for the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The fair-haired Matthews suffered from having to spend more than a month on board the Wanganella sailing across the world to get to the Olympics. He developed tendon problems from running on the decks of the ship and never displayed anything like his best form in Berlin. He was seventh in his 5000m heat after being up with the leaders in the early stages, and scratched from the 10,000m.
One positive effect of his trip to Berlin was that he spent time talking to and training with the great Jack Lovelock. Matthews recalled years later he would not have achieved as much in athletics were it not for the advice he received from Lovelock.
Gold medallists at Berlin were given seedlings of Black Forest oak trees. Lovelock entrusted his to Matthews to take back to New Zealand. Matthews did so and the tree now grows proudly in the grounds of Timaru Boys’ High School.
There were suggestions that sending Matthews to Berlin had been a waste of money. The Cantabrian did not defending his national title in 1937 and some felt his international career was already over.
In December 1937 he ran in the Empire Games trials at the Basin Reserve in Wellington and it was made clear to Matthews he would have to produce something special to be considered by the Sydney Empire Games.
Though the grass track was soft after a night’s rain, Matthews trimmed 4.6s off the New Zealand all-comers’ record that had been set by Japanese runner Kohei Murakoso earlier that year and won the race by 300 yards in 14min 07s, a personal best by 11 seconds. Considering he ran the entire race without any opposition to speak of, it was a remarkable effort. But Matthews was used to running alone, and was noted for his uncanny ability to pace his races.
The quietly spoken Matthews was not only sent to Sydney, but was entered in the six-mile event as well. His major opposition in Sydney was smooth English runner Peter Ward, a 5000m finalist in Berlin. Ward had beaten the Olympic gold and silver 10,000m medallists in 1937 and was a heavy favourite.
The three-mile race was held on the opening day of the Games. Eleven starters lined up in front of 40,000 people at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
By the halfway stage, Matthews and Ward were clearly going to dispute the gold. Going into the final lap, Matthews led, with Ward poised behind him. With 300 yards remaining, the Englishman made his move but Matthews would not let him past and he ran away to win by 30 yards. His time, 13min 59.6s, broke the Games record by nearly 28 seconds and was only nine seconds outside the world record.
Six days later, Matthews and Ward clashed again, over six miles, a distance Matthews had never contested. Indeed, it was not run at New Zealand championship until 1948.
Besides Ward and Matthews, there was another strong six-miler in the field, South African Wally Hayward. Another South African, Johannes Coleman, who had earlier won the marathon, acted as his team-mate’s pacemaker and engaged in some rough tactics to ensure he stayed in the front. He eventually withdrew from the race after 10 laps and then discovered he had already been disqualified.
Matthews settled into the lead at about the halfway point. With a mile to go Ward, tracking Matthews, struck the wooden border of the track and hurt his ankle. He limped from the track, and wished Matthews luck as he did so.
Striding on alone, Matthews ran in his usual metronomic fashion and relentlessly ground out the laps and was 180 yards ahead of the Canadian Scotty Rankine when he reached the tape in 30min 14.5s, another Games record.
Matthews’ double was so impressive that some European pressmen considered he would have beaten anyone in the world in that form. His Games records lasted 16 years. Among the 53 cablegrams that poured into the New Zealand headquarters for Matthews after his great double was one he cherished more than any. It read: “Heartiest congratulations on splendid victory. Great work. Jack Lovelock.”
Matthews regained his New Zealand three-mile title in 1938, and great things were expected of him at the 1940 Helsinki Olympic Games. However, those Games were cancelled because of World War II, and he drifted away from top athletics.
He served in the air force during World War II and later moved to Auckland, where he died 8 November 1987, aged 73.
Matthews was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.