When we farewelled Sir Peter Snell, we weren’t of course saying goodbye to just a good athlete, but a legendary one. And Snell was certainly Track and Field’s gain. For he had such genuine sporting talent that he probably could have forged a path in another sport, like tennis- of which he was a player of repute until he switched to running more seriously at the late age of nineteen.
Here then are some facts and some quirks about Peter Snell’s illustrious sporting career; which was one not exclusively confined to the running track:
* Snell was New Zealand’s inaugural ‘Superstars’ multi-discipline sports champion, from the adapted British TV series, in 1976. He was already thirty-seven years old when he achieved that. In the following few years of the competition he was also twice runner-up. His nemesis- the little ex-All Black winger, Grant Batty, who won the title three years running to 1980. As the winner of our ‘76 Superstars, Snell was invited to the 1977 World Superstars edition, where he placed third; notably ahead of American football great, Lynn Swann. Here he is in action in the rowing dinghy event of 1977 World ‘Superstars’:
* Snell’s medal-winning, record-breaking feats accumulated five entries in the iconic New Zealand anthology ‘Memorable Moments in New Zealand Sport’ (Moa Publications, 1979). The individual with the next-most was John Walker, with two.
* The third of those listed feats occurred on February 3rd, 1962, when Snell broke the World Record for the 800 metres, while racing on grass on Lancaster Park, in Christchurch. His time of 1 minute, 44.3 seconds still remains the national New Zealand men’s record, almost fifty-eight years on. What was unusual however was that Snell broke two World Records within the one race- the event was officially over the old imperial distance of 880 yards, but there was also a finishing tape a few metres from the finish line, at the the 800 metre point. So in fact Snell breasted TWO finishing tapes in one big swoop and collected two World Records. The 880 yards time was 1.45.1. Two finishing tapes in the one race seems almost a fairy story, but it was ratified fairly and squarely by the world governing body of the day.
* That particular feat spawned some great lines of local sports writing. It is a type of prose almost from a long-lost era: ‘Legs that had been hammered into shape in the rugged Waitakere Ranges and tempered with torrid volleys of sprinting.’ And of the race itself: ‘Snell has always bowled along with his lazy, seven-league stride, seemingly impassive and detached. But on Saturday there was none of this. He did not shrink from the exhausting pace of the first lap. He dragged himself around the second lap with frightening determination and was down to the sheer pith of his strength when he finished.’ And at the finish: ‘Snell waded down the straight as if through knee-high grass, thrashing to the tape with the sweat pouring off him and his mouth fixed open.’ (NZ Herald files)
* The Christchurch World Record came at the end of five races for Snell over a two-week period, and came just a week after he broke the World one-mile record at Cooks Gardens, Whanganui. His time was 3:54.4, and he finished five seconds ahead of the second placegetter, England’s Bruce Tulloch, a top athlete in his own right. And famous for running from Los Angeles to New York City- 2,876 miles in 64 days, in 1969.
Snell probably could have done it in 60. That’s how good he was. Rest in peace.
-Paul M email@example.com