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22 Oct 1968
Mexico 1968

Backstroke legend Matthes launches Olympic reign

Roland Matthes is quite simply the greatest backstroke exponent in the history of the Olympic Games. Watch our exclusive archive footage of the East German in action as he claimed the first of his four individual Olympic titles, in the 100m at Mexico City1968

Born in 1950 in Thuringia, then part of the German Democratic Republic, Roland Matthes is regarded as a swimming phenomenon. A backstroke specialist, but also highly proficient in the freestyle and medley events, he arrived at the 1968 Mexico City Games undefeated in the 100m or 200m since April 1967. In addition, he was the holder of the 100m world record, which he set in September 1967 at the tender age of 16.

On 22 October 1968, in Mexico City’s Francisco Márquez pool, the East German athlete put in an outstanding performance to win his first Olympic gold medal. Having recorded the fastest time of the 100m backstroke heats and semi-finals, he lined up for the final in lane four.

The early moments of the race saw him surge ahead of his rivals. By the turn, Matthes had built up a commanding lead, and went on to touch the wall in a time of 58.70 seconds, a new Olympic record. The American pair of Charles Hickcox (1:00.20) and Ronnie Mills (1:00.50) took silver and bronze respectively.

That authoritative victory was only the start of an extremely fruitful week for Matthes. Three days later, he added the 200m backstroke crown, clocking another Olympic record time of 2:09.60. The day after that, he competed in the 4x100m medley relay for East Germany, and while he had to settle for silver, as the German quartet finished behind the USA, his remarkable first-leg time of 58.00 seconds broke his own world record.

For seven long years, until the summer of 1974, Matthes remained unbeaten on the international stage in both the 100m and 200m. At Munich 1972, he managed to defend both of his titles, making him the most successful Olympic backstroke swimmer of all time.

He set no fewer than 21 world records during his career, culminating with a 56.30 in the 100m backstroke, on 4 September 1972 in Munich, and a 2:01.87 in the 200m, at the 1973 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Belgrade. Both records lasted for over three years.

Matthes enjoyed an Olympic swansong at Montreal 1976, where he collected a bronze in the 100m backstroke, taking his total medal haul at the Games to eight, including four golds.

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