The New Zealand Herald
Five of our best
1. PETER SNELL
Sir Peter Snell’s breasting of the finishing tape in the 800m at the Rome Olympics could be New Zealand sport’s definitive image.
In that instant on September 2, 1960, he morphed from promising runner to household name. Belgian Roger Moens, the world record-holder and soon-to-be silver medallist, has given everything for 799m. But an unknown 21-year-old Kiwi is about to pip him by 0.07s.
As Moens steals a glance to his left, he is equal parts distraught, disbelieving and disoriented by this Olympic coup de grace.
Snell exudes the desperation and desire for victory. His muscles and sinews implore contact with the tape.
“I was supposed to make my racewinning move in the back straight but couldn’t do it,” Snell told the Herald in 2016.
“As we swung into the home straight, it was still bunched, so I found a gap past George [Kerr] and caught Roger with about 30 yards to go.
“I had no idea who had won. I remember making that dive and seeing the tape still unbroken ahead of me.
“Roger had run wide to cover [bronze medallist] George Kerr, who he was more worried about. I came through on the inside.”
Snell’s jubilation compounded when Murray Halberg cantered to gold in the 5000m afterwards. The duo completed what at that time was New Zealand finest Olympic hour.
“When Murray staggered over the line and collapsed, I trotted over and said ‘Muzz, are you okay?’ He was pretty much out of it briefly,” Snell smiles.
“I saw Murray as a mentor. He had already shown he could be a worldbeater [setting the world record over the two-and three-mile distances in 1961]. The thought was if he could do it, maybe the rest of us could too.”
Snell credited coach Arthur Lydiard with fine-tuning his campaign.
“The expectations on me were low compared to Murray, but I thought I could do well based on Melbourne times from four years earlier. I’d have thought differently if I’d known I’d have to break the Olympic record to reach the final.“
“In Rome there were so many 800m entries that they squeezed in an extra round of heats on the first day. Arthur said ‘that’s perfect for you because of your endurance training, you’ll survive where others might find trouble’.“
He also suggested Roger [Moens] would be vulnerable if he was beaten in the lead-up. I did that in the semifinal, but I’m not sure that fazed him. Fortunately the pace in the final was fast thanks to Christian Wagli of Switzerland. Four races in three days saw the field tire.
Lydiard recommended Snell escape the spotlight by visiting the island of Capri, but his privacy was short-lived.
“I accompanied a couple of guys from Arthur’s pensione. We checked in our passports and stayed at Sorrento before catching the ferry. We were shown to a basement-type room which looked out on a retaining wall.“
“When we came back, the front office was buzzing. They’d been watching the Olympics on TV. Suddenly we were ushered to a beautiful room overlooking the Bay of Naples at the same price. It might’ve been an amateur sport but there were some benefits,” the late Snell chuckled in 2016.
Snell became the early 1960s barometer for middle-distance running. He broke world records for the mile, half-mile and 800m, and became a double Empire and Commonwealth Games champion at Perth in 1962. However, Olympic golds were his zenith.
“You get multiple opportunities to try for world records but one chance every four years for a gold medal. You have to nail it on the day. It’s more difficult to do that in the pressure of the Olympic arena. I like the fact I had world records to back up the medals.”
Snell’s ambition culminated in a treat at Tokyo four years on. His blitzes up the back straight to secure the 800m and 1500m titles could inspire the most slothful couch potato to sit bolt upright.
Wearing singlet ‘466’, a garment returned in 2016 to the national consciousness with Te Papa’s auction interest, he recorded two iconic Kiwi sporting moments.
“I was known for a race-winning blow to opposition, but that’s only possible when you have the fitness to be cruising and waiting to turn it on. That’s what being well-trained is all about in endurance. You float along at a fast pace but have reserves.
“I liked to make it as dramatic as possible to get a psychological advantage. George Kerr did that to me in an 800m race in Napier. He went so fast I thought ‘that’s it’ and
gave up. Then he slowed down and I nearly caught him. That taught me a lesson to apply to others.”
Sheltered by a nylon jacket and insulated by olive oil rubbed into his legs, Snell logged 1010 miles in 10 weeks to prepare for Tokyo over the Auckland winter, often at Alexandra Park.
“With that base I could do more race-related interval training, and it meant I could handle the six races in eight days to do the double.”
Snell briefly enjoyed some spoils from his feats. Lamb chops from home were savoured one evening at the New Zealand trade commissioner’s residence after the 800m victory, before he attended to the business of the 1500m later in the meet. Snell contemplated a return to the 800m at the Mexico City Olympics but his new life, without the anxious glances at his watch when socialising after 9.30pm, held sway.
“For seven years from the age of 19 my life had been running, working and sleeping. I was too tired.“Okay, I had gold medals and world records, but what was the point of continuing? There were no financial gains, and I had other things to explore, like family life.”
Peter George Snell was born on December 17, 1938 in Opunake.
As a child his family moved to Te Aroha and he discovered running while boarding at Mt Albert Grammar School where initial forays into the mile and 880 yards saw him finish adrift.
He met Lydiard in 1958 and formed one of New Zealand sport’s immortal partnerships. Less fabled was his first encounter with the 35km Waiatarua route through the Waitakere Ranges.
The Snell comet left a trail of shattered records. His 1962 national 800m record remains, and no one, let alone a New Zealander, has completed the Olympic 800m/1500m double since. He retired in 1965 aged 26.