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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Why Peter Snell Was My Hero

Never beaten in  major competition, Snell is shown here dominating the 1964 Tokyo Olympic 1500m final.
By Harry Cummins

     Sad news arrived this week from Dallas, Texas.  New Zealand's Peter Snell, who set world records in middle distance running in the 1960's, passed away in his home at the age of 80.

     Snell was one of my boyhood heroes, etching his name next to Mantle and Kaline in the batting order of my imagination.  I remember as a boy, clipping a photograph from a magazine of Peter Snell, clad in all black, racing the wind along a deserted New Zealand beach.  Long before awareness, the heart had begun its tracings of what was later to become my own romance with the mile run. For years, that picture of the solitary runner set against the sea hung on my bedroom wall.

     Snell won every major competition he entered, including the 1960 Olympic Games 800 meters, the 1962 Commonwealth Games 880 yd and one mile events, and his 1964 double triumph in capturing the 800m and 1500m races at the Tokyo Olympic Games.  In 1962, never having broken 4 minutes in the mile, Snell bested Herb Elliott's existing world record by clocking a stunning 3:54.4  in a mile race in Whanganui, New Zealand.

     Snell trained under legendary coach, Arthur Lydiard, and often would run up to 100 miles a week.  His favorite course was a grueling uphill 22 mile circuit in the Waitakere Mountain Range outside Auckland.

     In 1962, Snell won an 800 meter race in a world record time of 1:44.3, competing in stiff leather spikes and running on a thick grassy cricket field.

     After his running days concluded, Snell settled in the United States, moving to Dallas to do post graduate fellowship work at a research center where he focused on the effects of aerobic exercise on cardiac health. He later became Director of Texas University's Southwest Medical Center's Human Performance Lab.  Snell himself, had developed cardiomyopathy in the late 60's.

     In 2000, Snell was voted New Zealand's Athlete of the Century.  Soon afterwards, he was knighted.  Many regard his double Olympic victory in Tokyo as the greatest athletic achievement in New Zealand history.  He still remains as the only runner in the last 100 years to win Olympic gold in both the 800m and 1500m in the same Olympic Games.

     In my own subsequent passage into adulthood, the harsh realities of death, divorce and disappointment came upon me like mysterious visitations, early witnesses to my own mortality.  Yet, Sir Peter Snell always remained my hero.

     Heroism was slowly redefined, embodied in my friends and acquaintances who struggled with the very same mysteries.  These were the people who seemed to always be there when it counted most.

     In the lexicon of sport, this was Peter Snell's legacy.  He came thru when it counted.  Sport, of course, must never be mistaken as finally sufficient in itself when explaining life's circumstances.  But in experiencing these heroic and noble moments, they illuminate our existence and are worthy of  pursuit.  In the process, we learn about human limits and, perhaps, how to extend them.

      It can be a hostile world, four minutes to a mile and fourscore years to a lifetime.  We need traveling companions and heroes, other than our own thoughts, to accompany us on the journey.

     May 'The Man In Black' always be remembered as a fellow 'wind-runner' on the deserted beach we all must traverse.






  1. Peter Snell was truly a great one and not just as an athlete but also as a scholar. One of the greatest to ever lace up the spikes.

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