This is not a runner, this is a god!  —German spectator at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Snell Rome 800m

Outside the library in the main street of Opunake there is a statue of a runner in full stride. Peter Snell is the Taranaki town’s most famous son, but as a small boy, locals remembered him as just another scrawny little kid. However, Snell went on to become the country’s most successful middle distance athlete and one of its greatest sportsman. Yesterday he passed away in Texas at the age of 81.

peter againHe broke many world records and won a number of Commonwealth and Olympic medals. But back in 1960, when he was selected to run the 800 metres in the Rome Olympics, he was unknown and unheralded.

Coming in under the radar

Who’s the big guy in black? —Bing Crosby’s question to journalists

Before Rome, Peter Snell had a best time of 1.49.2 for the 800 metres, ranking him 26th in the world. For some unknown reason, there were to be three rounds before the Olympic final. In the first round there were four runners in Snell’s race with three to qualify. The opposition was strong: Ernie Cunliffe was ranked third in the world on time, Christian Waegli fifth and the other runner, Istvan Rozsavoelgyi, was one on the world’s best 1500-metre  runners.

One commentator remarked: This is ridiculous! A four man field and you can write down the first three names before the race starts. Not on his list was the unknown Kiwi who won the race easily in 1.48.1.

Snell Rome 800m second heatIn the quarter finals he was up against Roger Moens of Belgium who held the world record of 1.45.7.  Snell ran cautiously and qualified for the next round with a second place. Psychologically, coach Arthur Lydiard felt that it was vital for the New Zealander to beat Moens in the semi final, which he did, in another personal best of 1.47.2.

On to the final

Jamaican, George Kerr, had run 1.47.1 in his semi-final so the expectation was that Kerr, Snell and Moens would share the medals. The pundits felt that the Belgian was biding his time for the final and that the Kiwi might run out of steam in this fourth race in three days.

Snell Tokyo 1964

Waegli did his usual front running and led for most of the race. Snell had little experience at this level and found that he couldn’t make the planned race-winning break in the back straight. He was feeling the pace of top competition and when Moens swept past him, all seemed lost. On the final bend he was back in fifth place.

I was so inexperienced I didn’t realise that everyone would be feeling the pace, not just me. Sure enough, as we hit the straight runners were dying out there. They were fading and gaps were opening up. It gave me renewed life. Suddenly I could see a way through.

Snell had sensibly stayed on the inside and moved up to third place. Moens had run wider and therefore further, but was still leading with 20 metres to run. The Kiwi roared through and lunged forward into the tape, but was it good enough for gold?

I had no idea who had won. I ran the last half yard with my eyes shut and Roger was quite a way away. I turned to Roger a few seconds later and asked him who had won and he replied ‘You did’.

An extraordinary athlete and an inspirational coach

The 800-metres win in Rome was the start of a short but record breaking career on the track. Snell won gold in the 880 yards and mile in the 1962 Perth Commonwealth Games and gold in the 800 metres and 1500 metres in Tokyo in 1964. He held world records for the–

  • mile
  • 800 metres
  • 880 yards
  • 1000 metres
  • 4 x 1 mile relay.

Snell was one of a group of Auckland runners coached by the incomparable Arthur Lydiard. They did much of their long distance training in the Waitakere Ranges which included regular 20 mile runs, under Arthur’s watchful eye.

Peter Snell, Murray Halberg, Barry Magee and Bill Baillie were all world class athletes and they acknowledge that without Lydiard’s expertise, motivation and encouragement they would never have made the big time. Peter Snell summed up the coach’s impact.

I would never have had the vision to do what I did without Arthur. I might have been a good club runner, but I would never have done the distance work that was the foundation of my success. I organised my life to do what Arthur said and it paid off.

Successful academic career

Snell moved to the United States in 1971 to further his education. He gained a B.S. in human performance from the Davis Campus of the University of California and then a Ph.D in exercise physiology from Washington State. 

He was a research fellow at the University of Texas Medical Center from 1981 and later became Associate Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, and director of their Human Performance Center. He was also a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and was widely respected for his knowledge and research in this field.

Appropriately, snell is the Dutch word for fast. —Eds