Deciding on New Zealand greatest 25 Olympians of all time wasn’t an easy task.
Partly because of the sheer volume of fantastic feats over the last century or so and partly because of the difficulty of comparing performances across a range of sports.
It’s hard enough for the Halberg Award judges every year, but we had to compare the merits of medals won in different eras.
The list was thrashed out by some of the Herald and Radio Sport journalists covering the Rio Games.
We had to agree some early ground rules.
The first was that only gold medallists would be considered. That was a tough call, considering the likes of Nick Willis (silver, 2008), Dick Quax (silver, 1976), Paul Kingsman (bronze, 1988) and Bevan Docherty (silver and bronze, 2004 & 2008) had provided some of our most memorable Olympic moments.
But there had to be a line in the sand.
We also agreed that potential success in Rio wouldn’t be taken into account, so the likes of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, Valerie Adams and Mahe Drysdale would only be judged on achievements until 2012.
The list was also restricted to the Summer Olympics, otherwise Annalise Coberger, our only winter medallist, may have featured quite prominently.
From an original master list, each of us was tasked with listing our personal top 25.
From there we met, debated each group of five (25-21, etc)and took the majority view.
In general we considered the following factors: The impact of the performance at the time, the relative competitiveness of the sport or field and the rarity of the feat.
It’s unlikely anyone in our lifetimes will match Snell’s three gold medals on the track, nor Danyon Loader’s feats in the pool.
Most of the rest of the top 10 were multiple medallists or responsible for achievements that resonated for decades (the Munich rowing eight, Yvette Williams).
It was a head-scratcher, but in a good way because it was a celebration of success.
1960 Rome — 800m
1964 Tokyo — 800m
1964 Tokyo — 1500m
Snell won gold in the 800m at the Tokyo Olympics, breaking his own Games record. He then won gold in the 1500m five days later, becoming the second man to complete the Games’ 800m-1500m double.
Snell's very first golden moment was at the 1960 Rome Olympics winning in the 800m, breaking the Games record.
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 disorientated by this Olympic coup de grace.
Snell’s exudes the desperation and desire for victory. His muscles and sinews implore contact with the tape.
“I was supposed to make my race-winning move in the back straight but couldn’t do it,” Snell says. “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.”
Rome Olympics 1960 - 800m Photo: Getty Images
British West Indies/Jamaica
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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 world-beater [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 credits 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,” Snell chuckles.
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.
Tokyo Olympics 1964 - 800m Photo: Getty Images
Wilson Kiprugut Chuma
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Tokyo Olympics 1964 - 1500m:
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Wearing singlet ‘466', a garment recently returned 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.“Someone had been following us in a car. In the last five miles, I wanted to get in, but they had disappeared. I struggled to Murray [Halberg’s] house and was so exhausted that I got back and burst into tears. I was spent.”
Snell appreciated the late Lydiard’s input into his athletic life, but the master-pupil relationship eventually ran its course.
“Arthur concentrated on me when I was the new runner on the block. He ran with me when he had time and assigned me appropriate training partners. As the years progressed, and I became familiar with the training, I had a desire to make more of my own decisions. “That didn’t sit well with Arthur. He chewed me out about it. Eventually it boiled over and we had a falling out.
When we worked for the same company [tobacco giant Rothmans] we’d give talks together and he’d say how he taught his athletes to think for themselves, but as soon as I did, he didn’t like it.
“Having said that, I wouldn’t have my career without Arthur. He was selfless, didn’t charge a penny and probably sacrificed his family in the drive to prove his training produced champions.”
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.
Snell changed his career direction by studying in the United States, a decision culminating with a PhD in exercise physiology from Washington State University. He funded some of his education by defeating other top international athletes in events such as tennis, rowing and track cycling on the American television show Superstars.
“I thought of myself as having a ‘high achiever’ personality, which is why I wasn’t satisfied after my athletic career. I needed to do something else.
“You perform because it’s about recognition or, to perhaps put it crassly, glory. Why else dedicate your life as an amateur to try for gold medals? But when it’s all over and the cheering stops, that feeling of wanting to achieve doesn’t go away. “I’d failed university entrance, so I couldn’t go down that avenue, but I had spent a year in England and sat in on some [university] courses. I thought ‘this stuff is interesting and not too difficult'.”
Snell and his first wife Sally lived in the United States while he completed a bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Davis. He expected to return to New Zealand as a fitness expert but an excellent grade point average saw him absorbed by research. He extended his academic career.
“Superstars helped, thanks to my ‘misspent youth’ playing games. I opted to do a post-doctorate fellowship in Dallas where I’ve been since 1981.
“I was offered a job at the [University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center] faculty, rose to associate professor, loved having my own research lab and became an expert on exercise to complement my practical experience.”
As a Lydiard disciple, Snell now had a vehicle to prove why and how his mentor's system worked.
“A lot of so-called scientists felt long base training was a bad idea because it made you slow, but I could physiologically show what happens.
“There was also satisfaction in getting published, given my miserable academic background in New Zealand.”
Snell’s work appeared regularly in peer review journals. His last assignment, appropriately a chapter on exercise for a geriatric syllabus, forms a document which local doctors use to study for their board exams.
Retirement sees Snell settled in north-east Dallas with second wife Miki. A 30-minute walk from the train station takes you through leafy streets of brick and tile houses with well-attended pavements and lush berms. The bouquet of freshly cut grass wafts through the air, American flags are planted next to front doors and Cape Cod chairs sit adjacent to front lawn placards proclaiming ‘this residence is under video surveillance’ or ‘Trump – Let’s make America great again’.
Snell’s home welcomes you more subtly. A silver fern grows to the left of the front door.
At 77, his residence testifies to a comfortable retirement. It’s a contrast from the 1964 VW Kombi he arrived in, which held all his possessions, including his cat.
Landscaping created a back garden deck where he and Miki recline in summer while listening to the trickle of the local spring passing through the property. Their portrait gazes over a Turkish carpet in a renovated atrium which basks in the morning sun. A cabinet houses the pair’s treasures from lives of over-achievement. Examples of their glass-fusing hobby adorn the hallway. There are no prizes as to who crafted the tribute to Mt Taranaki.
Excursions to a local computerised golf range (Snell’s heart condition means a cart is required to go around a course), regular visits to the table tennis club and Spanish classes fill the day. Snell revels in a constant state of learning. Robust debate pinballs around the kitchen table, even during the Herald’s cameo visit.
“I never thought retirement would be so busy,” he says, as the crow’s feet around his eyes crinkle to show a man who looks like he laughs more now than he did in his earnest running pomp.
“I’m also the cook in our household, I come up with new recipes and do the shopping. Miki cleans up.
“There are aspects of New Zealand I miss; mainly the outdoors. I probably have more acquaintances here than friends, but professionally it’s been wonderful. I’m forever grateful for the opportunities in this country.
“My life would be different if I’d had the financial opportunities of today’s professional era. I wouldn’t have necessarily pursued an academic career and I don’t know what would have happened to me if I’d gone back to New Zealand. I doubt either option would’ve been as satisfying.”
* Andrew Alderson flew to interview Sir Peter Snell courtesy of Air New Zealand's non-stop flights to Houston at least five times a week. Visit airnewzealand.co.nz for more details.
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