Named New Zealand’s Sports Champion of the 20th Century, perhaps no athlete in the history of Kiwi athletics holds quite the same reverential status as middle-distance icon Sir Peter Snell.
A three-time Olympic gold medallist, double Commonwealth champion and six-time world record breaker his achievements under the revolutionary training methods of Arthur Lydiard formed the centrepiece of a golden era of New Zealand endurance running.
Born in Opunake, Taranaki on December 17, 1938 sport formed an important part of Snell’s life from a young age. He played rugby, badminton, cricket, golf and hockey and became a champion tennis player. During his time attending Mt Albert Grammar School in Auckland he had also showed promise as a middle-distance athlete, placing third over the 880yrds and mile distance at the Inter Secondary school sports.
He first met Lydiard at the age of 17 after a house boy at Mount Albert Grammar invited him along for a training run at Muriwai Beach. But, as Peter recalls, he did not instantly bond with the coach.
“I have a problem with people who are dogmatic and that is how Arthur came across,” explains Peter. “I later learned he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder and he wanted to prove something. But in some ways that is a good thing, and Arthur was always very positive.”
The pair only formalised their coach-athlete relationship two years later after Peter – who had been training for some time - wiped almost three seconds from his PB to win the 880yds in 1:54.0 at the Auckland v Waikato match in Auckland.
On the back of this performance a friend recommended Peter should join Arthur, and the teenage runner agreed.
Managing Lydiard’s high-mileage diet of around 160km per week was initially demanding, but an early comment by Arthur to his young charge after a training session in Grey Lynn proved hugely motivational.
“I remember doing repeat 220s (yards) and absolutely nailing them,” recalls Peter. “Arthur then said to me, ‘you have more speed than any other runner I’ve coached. It is not going to be easy with the distance work, but I think you’ll be one of New Zealand’s best racers’. As a high-achiever that was music to my ears.”
One of “Arthur’s Boys” as part of the Owairaka Athletics Club – and training alongside the likes of Sir Murray Halberg – his stamina was developed running the punishing 22-mile (35.5km) Waiatarua Trail.
Peter just missed out on qualification for the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff but made his big breakthrough during the 1958-59 campaign when defeating Halberg in an 2000m exhibition race.
His progress was stalled by a stress fracture of the tibia but an impressive performance in Melbourne – in what was his first international race - earned the youngster selection for the New Zealand team to compete in the 800m at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Ranked only 26th in the world few rated his chances but Snell was quietly confident of good showing.
“It was hard to know how I would go because I was training out of season in miserable weather and on asphalt roads but I thought I could run pretty well and the aim was to make the final,” he explains.
After posting a PB of 1:48.22 to win his first round heat he adds “I knew something good was going to happen, although I didn’t dare to hope beyond my expectations, which was to make the final.”
Peter then earned safe passage through the quarter-finals and semi-finals – the latter by edging clear 800m world record-holder Roger Moens of Belgium to claim victory.
In the six-man final, Peter had a pre-race plan to make his winning move down the back straight of the final lap but instead opted to leave his bid for glory until the final 100m.
After the Swiss athlete Christian Wagli took the field through the bell in 52 seconds, Peter sat fourth but slipped back to fifth around the final bend after he became trapped on the inside.
Thankfully with 70m remaining a gap appeared which acted as an “energising effect” and Peter seized his opportunity.
“I shot through the gap and found myself in third,” he recalls. “I then thought, ‘right, I can get second.’ It was only in the final very moments did I think I could win,” explains Peter, a hugely versatile athlete who was good enough to be crowned New Zealand cross country champion.
In a thrilling finale, Peter breasted the line in an Olympic record time of 1:46.48 – 0.07 clear of Moens, the silver medallist.
A little over 30 minutes later Snell also celebrated Sir Murray Halberg’s gold medal in the 5000m - in one of the most momentous day’s in New Zealand sporting history.
“From this moment on, my life changed quite considerably,” recalls Peter. “Murray and I also become bonded as gold medallists and he treated me like an equal, although I did look up to him.”
Now a celebrity in his native New Zealand, Peter took up a role as a quantity surveyor and in 1961 featured in the four man Kiwi team alongside Halberg, Gary Philpott and Barry Magee – which smashed the world 4x1-mile record in Dublin.
He emerged into the 1962 domestic campaign in outstanding shape – a belief crystallised after running a 4:01 handicap mile while on Christmas vacation in Timaru.
Peter entered the Agfa sponsored Whanganui meet in January aiming for a mile time “around 3:57” and was gobsmacked to run 3:54.4– and trim one tenth from Herb Elliott’s world record mark having hit the bell in 2:59.
Yet he believes the greatest race in his career came just six days later in Christchurch when he ran a blistering 800m world record of 1:44.3 and 880yrd world record of 1:45.1. The Kiwi middle-distance star had obliterated the previous world records by 1.4 seconds and 1.7 seconds, respectively, and as a further measure of the class of the performance his 800m mark remains the New Zealand record today.
“That time (1:44.3) still stands up today. If you look at the winning time of every Olympics since, it would have been good enough to win some of those finals, or at least certainly have placed.
“I am surprised the time is still a New Zealand record but I think this is a reflection of how good the time was. I have mixed emotions that nobody has gone on to beat it, but also immense pride that the records still stands.”
In November he trimmed one tenth of a second from the world 1000m record with a 2:16.6 clocking at Western Springs in Auckland before concluding his 1962 campaign with a flourish by completing the 880yrd and one mile double at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth.
Unlike the Rome Olympics when Peter was a complete unknown internationally, at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics the Kiwi had to balance the additional burden of favouritism with the immense challenge of completing the 800m and 1500m double, last achieved by Albert Hill of Great Britain at the 1920 Antwerp Games.
While he felt he was comfortably the best athlete over both distances he was unsure how his body would handle six races in eight days across the busy schedule.
First up was the 800m and after easing through his heat and semi-finals in the final he unleashed a thunderous attack with 200m remaining to destroy the field. He crossed the line to take gold in an Olympic record 1:45.1 – at that time the second fastest time in history – half-a-second clear of Canada’s silver medallist Bill Crothers.
With the benefit of a day’s rest between the heats, semi-finals and final of the 1500m, Peter’s body could cope with the demands and in an emphatic display of middle-distance running he crushed the field in the final, taking gold in 3:38.1 – 1.5 seconds clear of the Czech Josef Odlozil in silver with Snell’s countryman John Davies in bronze.
“It was a great feeling of achievement,” he says of winning double gold in Tokyo. “In Rome I felt disbelief and excitement but in Tokyo I expected to win. I was just glad I was able to do it.”
One month later in Auckland he signed off a glorious year by lowering his own world mile record, recording 3.54.1.
The following year after a disappointing overseas campaign and lacking in motivation to train he retired from the sport at the age of 26.
Post his athletics career, he accepted an offer of a job at Rothmans in New Zealand before later studying at the University of California from 1974-1977, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree – to launch what would become an outstanding academic career.
In 1982 he graduated with a PhD from Washington State University. Honoured with a Doctorate in Exercise Physiology he went on to carve out a career as a world-renowned exercise physiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Despite having struggled at school academically, Peter insists his later academic accomplishments are on par with anything he achieved on the track.
“I had the impression from my time at school that I was not smart academically and that impression is left with you when you fail exams,” he explains. “I feel decisions that are made about your capabilities at the age of 17 are wrong. Other questions need to be asked, and when I look back, the reason why I wasn’t performing academically was that I was spending too much time playing games.”
In 1990 was the first person to be inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame and in 2009 he was re-designated a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. In 2012 he was one of 24 inaugural members inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame.
Today retired in Dallas, Texas, where he lives with wife, Miki, he can look back on a full life with no regrets and fully acknowledges the critical role Arthur played in his glittering athletics career,
“A lot of people said that it was not Arthur’s coaching but my talent, which contributed to my success,” explains Peter. “That annoyed him but we both know that isn’t the case, his training made all the difference.”
Author: Steve Landells