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Sir Peter Snell, a New Zealand Athletic Legend who Always be Remembered

Sir Peter Snell, a New Zealand Athletic Legend who Always be Remembered

Three-time Olympic champion and world record-breaking middle-distance man from New Zealand passes away on the eve of 81st birthday.

The New Zealand legend won the Olympic 800m title in Rome in 1960 followed by 800m and 1500m gold medals at the Tokyo Games in 1964 – and he remains the only man to have completed this unique double at the Olympics.

1960 Rome Olympic Games 🥇 800 metres
1964 TokyoOlympic Games🥇 800 metres
1964 Tokyo Olympic Games🥇 1500 metres
1962 PerthCommonwealth Games 🥇 880 yards
1962 Perth Commonwealth Games 🥇1 mile
800 metres 1:44.3 World Record
880 yards1:45.1World Record
1000 metres2:16.6World Record
1500 metres3:37.6NZ Record
Mile3:54.1World Record

Born in Opunake, Snell moved with his family to Waikato in 1949. The talented junior athlete attended Mount Albert Grammar School in Auckland, where he took up a wide range of team and individual sports, including rugby union, cricket, tennis, badminton, and golf. Snell had also shown promise as a middle-distance athlete, placing third over the 880yrds and mile distance at the Inter-Secondary school sports.

At age 19, Snell was motivated to concentrate on running by the comments of his future coach, Arthur Lydiard, who told him, “Peter, with the sort of speed you’ve got, if you do the endurance training, you could be one of our best middle-distance runners.”

During his relatively short career, he also won Commonwealth titles at 880 yards and the mile in Perth in 1962 and set world records for 800m (1:44.3), 880 yards (1:45.1), 1000m (2:16.6) and the mile (3:54.1) – with the latter set in Auckland in 1964.

Coached by Arthur Lydiard, their methods had a significant influence on runners around the world with Snell building strength with lots of steady mileage before applying the finishing touches with speedwork close to his big races.

New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) President Mike Stanley claimed Sir Peter was responsible for some of the finest moments in New Zealand sport.

“‘ 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 minds as among our most significant sporting achievements.”

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.

Snell’s persistence and perfectionism later carried him to a successful career in scientific research that no one would have predicted when he left high school without the qualification to enter university. His athletics career was relatively brief as he turned his sights to education after settling in the United States. He gained a Bachelor of Science in human performance from the University of California, Davis, and then a PhD in exercise physiology from Washington State University. He joined the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre at Dallas as a research fellow in 1981.

“Get up from the couch and the computer and play something active,” he said. “New Zealand’s health depends on it.”

Snell was a big advocate for New Zealand to be a nation of participants.

“a legend, here and around the world. Our thoughts are with Sir Peter’s wife, Miki and their family.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

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

President Mike Stanley

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.

The mile is a unique event in NZ’s athletic history and is celebrated annually through the Sir Peter Snell International Track Meeting. The dedicated meet features two of Snell’s specialist events – the Mile and 800 metres. 

Next years edition will be significant for many reasons, staged at Cooks Gardens on Saturday 14th March 2020, it will be a fitting tribute to an NZ great. 

Dedication by NZ Olympics: It is with immense sadness that we acknowledge the passing of Olympian #151, the great Sir Peter Snell.