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Obituary Sir Peter Snell

New Zealand’s greatest Olympian and one of the greatest middle distance runners of all time Sir Peter Snell KNZM, OBE, MBE, died in Dallas USA on Thursday 12 December 2019 aged 80.

Obituary: Sir Peter Snell, KNZM, OBE, MBE

Snell catapulted on to the international stage at the age of 21, in spectacular fashion winning the gold medal in the 800m at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, narrowly beating the more fancied runner and world record holder Roger Moens of Belgium.
Then four years later at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, he became the fourth male athlete to win 800m and 1500m Olympic double gold medals. Previous double winners Edwin Flack of Australia in 1896, Jim Lightbody USA in 1904, 1908 Mel Sheppard of the USA and Albert Hill of Great Britain in 1920.

Snell won six New Zealand titles: four 880 yards, the mile and cross country in 1962 at Taradale.

Prior to his success at the Perth Commonwealth Games in 1962, where he won gold in the 880 yards and the mile, Snell was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services in the field of athletics in the 1962 Queen’s Birthday Honours. Three years later he was elevated to Officer of the same order in the 1965 New Year Honours. In the 2002 New Year Honours, he was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to sport, and in 2009, following the restoration of titular honours by the New Zealand government, he accepted re-designation as a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Snell set eight world records: 800m, 880 yards, 880 yards indoors, 1000 yards indoors, 1000m, the mile (twice) and as a member of the 4×1 mile relay team.

He was awarded the Lonsdale Cup of the New Zealand Olympic Committee in 1962 and in 1964. He was Track & Field News athlete of the year in 1962 and 1964 and the same magazine named him athlete of the 1960’s.

Snell was voted New Zealand’s Sports Champion of the 20th century and was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990. He was one of 24 inaugural inductees into the IAAF Hall of Fame in 2012.

He retired at the end of the 1965 season and moved to the USA in 1971, where he gained degrees in human performance and exercise physiology.

In recent years he became an active orienteer and won national masters titles in that sport. He was also a competitive table tennis player and competed at the 2017 World Masters Games.

Snell had been due to attend the recent World Athletics Heritage Mile night in Monaco and was even set to defy doctors’ orders not to travel, but he decided against it at the last minute after feeling unwell at the airport.

Snell, who would have turned 81 on 17 December, is survived by his wife Miki and daughters from his first marriage to Sally, Amanda and Jacqueline.

Murray Halberg, who won the 5000m Gold medal in Rome after Snell had earlier won, said that he is “terribly saddened” by Sir Peter’s death.

“At times we were great rivals and competed in tandem almost,” he says. “I will forever remember sharing that day in Rome together. It would have been a highlight for anyone able to do the same.”

New Zealand Olympic Committee President Mike Stanley praised the track star, saying he was responsible for some of the finest moments in New Zealand sport.

“His achievements are at the heart of New Zealand’s sporting history and have helped shape our national identity,” he says.

“The Golden Hour in Rome 1960 was followed by back to back gold medals at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games. These incredible races stand out in many Kiwi’s minds as among our greatest sporting achievements.”

Snell had just recently in August, been appointed Patron of Athletics New Zealand

Athletics New Zealand Chief Executive Peter Pfitzinger, said Sir Peter was a true icon and inspiration, who leaves behind a huge legacy.

“On behalf of Athletics New Zealand I would like to extend our heartfelt condolences to Sir Peter’s family and friends, and to everyone like me who lost a hero today. He will be greatly missed by many,” said Pfitzinger.

“His achievements on the track are such a huge part of New Zealand’s sporting history and he will continue to inspire generations to come.”

Barry Magee, Rome Olympics marathon bronze medallist, who trained with Snell under legendary coach Arthur Lydiard, said that Snell was like Sir Edmund Hillary was to mountain climbing.

“He is the greatest athlete that has ever competed and ran for New Zealand and he is a super star who has gone, a legend, a true legend that has gone from the sporting world.”

Rome Olympian Barry Robinson, who paced Snell over the first lap of that historic 800m and 880 yards world record run at Lancaster Park Christchurch on 3 February 1962, gives the following account of that occasion.

“I was requested to get down to Christchurch by the President of the Auckland Amateur Athletics Centre Frank Sharp, to act as pacemaker for the record attempt by the great PG Snell, who I was good friends with and had roomed with at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. The day for the record attempt dawned very damp with several showers. It had rained considerably the day before, so much so that I thought I had been sent unwittingly on a fool’s errand and there was no way that even the great PGS would be setting a world record on a slow damp grass wet track. Wrong again, for on arrival at the Lancaster Park venue I saw Peter was alone and seriously warming up on the outer ground. I knew immediately it was the real deal. We never spoke at all during the long warm up before the gun and Pete kept himself in complete isolation as he mentally prepared.

The start was a little rough as laned 880 starts were not yet in vogue at Lancaster Park Stadium and PG suffered a metre or two because of it. I led the field comfortably through the entire first lap with Peter trailing 2 to 3 metres at the bell, which we passed in the high 49’s which I was told later had been the fasted first lap time in history for the 880. At the bell I felt the slow track was already starting to come at me. So I moved out to allow Peter through to get a clear run around the curve. My primary goal now was to survive and finish. Peter came through me looking great and strong and as he ran away confidently around the curve I down geared for the new experience of a second lap. I watched PG run in full gait gaining ground alone in front down the back stretch in his usual inspiring domitable style which he continued into the final curve at all times increasing his big lead.

But emerging from that final curve I saw him begin to lose control of his action and into the final straight he was starting to stagger but still applying his great power. His progression up the final straight was an impressive exhibition of strength running while staggering through sheer tiredness. I had personally never witnessed this before from the Olympic champion and to this day I attribute it to the taxing holding grass track conditions taking its toll. He finished a relieved man but once again his recovery display was swift.

What a performance. I had had a box office seat for a lot of the run. New world records of course. Approximately 1.5 seconds taken off both 880yds and 800m. I was told at the time that it had taken several different athletes to accumulatively take that amount of time off the previous record over a 25 year period. PG did it in one run on a very slow track. Later I told the new world record holder that I strongly believed his run had to be worth at least two seconds faster (one second per lap at least) on a fast artificial track.

He laughed and I wondered then if he actually knew his own strength. Interestingly some 25 years or so later when visiting New Zealand, Peter asked me if I remembered what I had said to him back on that famous day in 1962. It’s true I said. It was what it was – slow. He then told me that with the benefit of hindsight he also had come to the same conclusion to believe it to be true as I had said in 1962. What a great champion. His youthful modesty prevailed at the height of his world glory when setting world records.”

Note: Snell’s 800m time of 1:44.3 still stands as the New Zealand resident and national record and is the oldest record in the Athletics New Zealand record book.

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