Peter Snell stands at the top of New Zealand sport. In 2000 he was voted New Zealand Athlete of the Century. In 1990, at the inaugural New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame induction, he was given the privilege of being the first person honoured.

Three Olympic gold medals, two Empire Games golds, a clutch of world records and no defeats in major races is a mighty record. Twice he was Sportsman of the Year. He was named 1960s Athlete of the Decade by the authoritative Track & Field News.

Along with Murray Halberg and the other outstanding pupils of master coach Arthur Lydiard, Snell was responsible for the finest era in New Zealand athletics. Massive crowds flocked to see him, not just in the main centres, but in Wanganui, Invercargill, Tokoroa and Masterton.

There were so many shining moments in his career that it is difficult to single out a highlight, but he nominates two.

"The first was the final of the Olympic 800m at Rome in 1960," he says. "I was just 21 and when I burst through to win the final from Roger Moens, the world record-holder, I was stunned. I went to Rome hoping to make the final. It was hard to believe that suddenly I was an Olympic champion. I recall looking up to the giant results board above the track and seeing P G Snell NZL at the top of the list. That was one of the great thrills of my life."

Snell's magic afternoon at Rome was completed half an hour later when Murray Halberg won the 5000m gold medal. New Zealand really did rule the stadium that day.

Another never-to-be-forgotten came on January 27, 1962, when he lined up at Wanganui, hoping to become the first person to break the four-minute barrier for the mile in New Zealand and ended up breaking Herb Elliott's world record. That race changed his career. He was from then on regarded primarily as a miler.

However, the week after his Wanganui run, Snell smashed the world records for 880 yards and 800m running on grass at Lancaster Park, Christchurch. The times he set that day remain New Zealand records five decades later.

By 1964, Snell - who fitted in quantity surveying study through his career - was looking for a great performance at the Tokyo Olympics to cap his career and he did it, completing a rare 800m-1500m gold medal double.

He was a little concerned about the 800 metres, which came first, because he felt he might have lost some of his speed. However, he cruised through to the final and then ran brilliantly to record the second-fastest time ever (behind his own world record). He won the 1500m title even more decisively, bursting clear with 240 metres remaining and quickly leaving the rest of the field in his wake.

The 1500m race was the first time two New Zealanders had won medals in the same Olympic event, because John Davies was the surprise bronze medallist.

After a relatively unsuccessful world tour in 1965, Snell retired.

In the early 1960s, Snell was an absolute cult figure. If he signalled his intention to run, a huge crowd was guaranteed. Meets featuring Snell often drew crowds of 25,000, even 30,000.

After his retirement Snell worked for some years as the Rothmans Foundation's director of coaching. But he found his name and reputation cloying and longed to achieve more off the track.

He had never been an outstanding student, but a year at Loughborough College in 1971 convinced him he had the ability to achieve academic honours. So he packed up his family and moved to the United States. He studied at the University of California from 1974-77 and earned a Bachelor of Science degree.

That might have ended his study, but for the Superstars craze of the time. He won the New Zealand section and represented New Zealand at the world event. His prizemoney paid for his graduate studies at Washington State University. After gaining a PhD at Washington, he moved to Dallas to do a post-doctoral fellowship.

He has continued to do research in Dallas and Dr Snell, as he is now, is these days in heavy demand to present papers and make speeches on exercise physiology.

Yet he has maintained his contact with New Zealand. He was a Governor of the Sports Foundation, and was involved with the Snell Institute in Auckland until its demise. In 1990 he ran the final lap at the Auckland Commonwealth Games opening ceremony.

It seems he will remain permanently in the United States. His second wife, Miki, is American, and he is happily settled in Dallas.

Snell was awarded the Lonsdale Cup in 1962 and 1964. In 2002 he was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and a few years later officially became Sir Peter Snell.

Tweet Share

Peter's Games History