Peter Snell, far left, was a columnist for the Auckland Star during the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. At the Olympia SG typewriter is his ghostwriter, Phil Gifford, a former colleague of mine at the New Zealand Herald in Auckland. Third from the left is Auckland Star journalist Roy Williams, the decathlon gold medallist at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica, and brother of 1952 Olympic Games long jump winner Yvette Williams.
One of the two greatest heroes of my childhood died of heart failure in Dallas, Texas, last Thursday, five days short of his 81st birthday. New Zealand runner Sir Peter Snell was a three-times Olympic Games gold medallist, including the 800-1500 metres double in Tokyo in 1964, and twice broke the world record for the one mile. Snell moved to the United States in 1971 and became a bachelor of science in human performance at the University of California, Davis. He then gained a doctorate in exercise physiology from Washington State University and joined the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre in Dallas as a research fellow in 1981. He was associate professor of the Department of Internal Medicine and also director of the Human Performance Centre.
Peter Snell powers to victory in the 800 metres at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, becoming only the third man (and one of four ever) to retain the title.
Peter George Snell was born in Opunake in the Taranaki district of New Zealand, on December 17, 1938. He attended boarding school in Auckland, where he proved to be a far better all-round sportsman than a scholar. He excelled in rugby, cricket, tennis and especially track. Snell won national junior and senior titles over 880 yards and the mile and, although aged just 21 and ranked 17th equal in the world over 800 metres, he was selected to go to the 1960 Rome Olympic Games as an “investment in the future” – that is, mainly to gain international experience. In Rome, however, he stunned everyone, including fellow Kiwis, by setting Games records and easily qualifying for the final. And in that memorial final, Snell burst from the pack on the last bend to beat world record holder Roger Moens of Belgium and joint favourite George Kerr of Jamaica in Olympic record time (1min 46.3sec).
That afternoon in sunny Rome was all the more joyous for New Zealanders, because an hour after Snell’s triumph his training partner and fellow Aucklander Murray Halberg won the 5000m gold medal. Both were coached by Arthur Lydiard. A third Lydiard protégée. Barry Magee, later won a bronze medal in the marathon.
While Snell continued to dominate Moens and Kerr over the half-mile in meets around New Zealand in early 1961, Oregon’s Dyrol Burleson – sixth in the 1500m in Rome – proved to be a more savvy miler. But things were soon to change. Later that year Snell toured Europe with a four-man New Zealand team and with Halberg and Magee (and Gary Philpott) was part of a relay team which broke the world 4 x 1 mile record at Santry Stadium in Dublin.
Snell smashes two world records in Christchurch in early February 1962.
Back in New Zealand, Snell opened the 1962 season in fine style by clipping a tenth of a second (3 minutes 54.4 seconds) off the world mile record set by Australian Herb Elliott at Santry Stadium in 1958. That happened on a Saturday night at the Cooks Gardens in Wanganui, and the following Saturday afternoon at Lancaster Park in Christchurch, Snell smashed both the world 800m and half-mile worlds records. He took 1.4 seconds off Moens' 800m time with 1min 44.3, and 1.7 seconds off Tom Courtney’s 880 yards time with 1min 45.1sec. Amazingly, these three world records were all set on grass tracks, and in the case of Cooks Gardens the track was only 385 yards long, meaning Snell had to negotiate an extra bend.
At the end of 1962 Snell won the half mile-one mile gold medal double at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games at Perry Lakes Stadium in Perth, Western Australia, again beating Kerr in the 880. Snell raced many times in the US during this period, each time proving the superior of top US miles such as Jim Beatty and Jim Grelle, and consistently dipping under 3min 57sec in doing so. In all he ran 14 sub-four minute miles, second only to Elliott’s 17, but Snell's career cluster of sub 3:57 times was far better than Elliott's.
Snell went to the 1964 Olympic Games as favourite to win both the 800m and 1500m gold medals. He duly achieved the double, becoming the first man to do so in 44 years. It’s a feat not emulated since. Snell returned to New Zealand and in meets at the Western Springs Stadium in Auckland improved his world mile record to 3min 54.1 and set a new world record for 1000 metres, 2min 16.6sec. These performances ensured that Snell was voted New Zealand's "Sports Champion of the Century" and in 2012 was one of 24 inaugural inductees in the International Association of Athletics Federation’s Hall Of Fame.
Beyond the track, Snell in later life showed he was still a champion. He won the over-65s US orienteering title in 2003 and competed in table tennis in Texas state and US national championships and at the World Masters Games just two years ago.
Peter Snell was both a huge hero and a massive inspiration to me, from the age of 12. He was comfortably the greatest athlete I have ever seen, and I’ve seen some greats - Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, Michael Johnson, Sergei Bubka, Flo-Jo Griffith, Jackie Joyner Kersee and a host of others. But Snell is secure from my formative and most impressionable years. I held the tape when he crashed through it and broke the West Coast 880 yards record at the War Memorial Grounds in my home town of Greymouth in 1961, and I got his autograph afterwards. All I had to offer him was a pencil. For all that, by far my fondest memory is of seeing him burn off Oregon’s Keith Forman in the anchor leg of the 4 x 1 mile “Test” relay at Trafalgar Park in Nelson in 1963 (below).
Snell's great win in Rome and his appearance in Greymouth soon afterwards motivated many of us of a tender young age to get out on to the roads and the tracks and start running. I myself was an inspiring half-miler. But two of my clubmates from that time had more lasting power than I did. Dave McKenzie (below right), a printer at the newspaper I started on, won the 1967 Boston marathon in record time, and Eddie Gray (below left) won international cross-country championships. My first track race was a twilight 660 yards handicap, and they both beat me, despite the big start I had.
Snell was a powerfully built, broad-shouldered athlete, so unlike the classic physique of a middle-distance runner. But then he was a specialist half-miler with real 440 yards speed, and his achievements over the mile came from the stamina Lydiard had instilled in him. The more slightly-built Elliott had much of that endurance, but not the basic speed that came with it with Snell. When Snell stretched his legs and turned on the gas, as he often did with about 200-300 yards to run, nobody could stay with him. That was what he did to Forman in Nelson. Video of his Tokyo triumphs show him suddenly splitting the fields apart with a devastating burst of power. He was awesome to watch.
His overseas victories, and his races elsewhere in New Zealand, were occasions I was able to follow avidly on radio. They were times of sheer joy, moments I’ll cherish forever. A giant of a man has left us. I feel blessed to have met him, and to have seen him run.