Three-time Olympic champion Peter Snell dies aged 80

Kiwi was voted New Zealand’s “Sports Champion of the Century”

New Zealander Peter Snell winning the gold medal in the 1,500 metres at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964. Photo: Central Press/Getty Images

New Zealander Peter Snell winning the gold medal in the 1,500 metres at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964. Photo: Central Press/Getty Images

 

The death has occured of Peter Snell, the three-time Olympic champion on the track and arguably the greatest in the history of New Zealand athletics.

Snell was 80, and due to turn 81 on Tuesday: he had suffered a minor heart ailment in recent weeks and died at his home in Dallas, Texas, where he lived for most of his later years, after working as associate professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre.

He will unquestionably be remembered as one of New Zealand’s most successful Olympians on the track – winning three gold medals, first over 800m at the 1960 Rome Olympics, before doubling in the 800m and 1500m in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. He also set two Olympic records at 800, and world records over 800m and over the mile, twice lowering it to 3:54.4, and then 3:54.1.

Snell had a relatively short career in athletics starting 1960 and retiring in 1965, but achieved so much and so impressively that he was voted New Zealand’s “Sports Champion of the Century” and was one of 24 inaugural members of the International Association of Athletics Federations Hall Of Fame named in 2012.

A protégé of the New Zealand athletics coach Arthur Lydiard, Snell also won two Commonwealth Games gold medals in Perth in 1962, again winning both the 800m and 1,500m. Born in the Taranaki, his family later moved to the Waikato, before he completed his schooling at Mt Albert Grammar. By the age of 19 he was concentrating on athletics, having originally excelled in tennis.

In winning 800m-1,500 m double in Tokyo, Snell became the only male to achieve this at the Olympics since 1920, and it’s not been achieved by any male at any Olympics since.

His former world records of 1:44.3 for 800 m (February 1962) and 2:16.6 for 1000 m (November 1964), remain the New Zealand national records for these distances. His 800m record remains the fastest ever run over that distance on a grass track, and is also the oldest national record recognized by the IAAF for a standard track and field event.

Snell was due to appear at the World Athletics Heritage Mile Night in Monte Carlo last month and even attempted to defy doctors’ orders to attend the event, but decided against it at the last minute after “feeling poorly” at the airport. He was going to be presented with two “surprise” world record plaques at the event in Monte Carlo for 1000m and one-mile records he set in Auckland.

In his autobiography No Bugles, No Drums, written with Garth Gilmour, the inner sleeve reads: “On being asked to write something for the front flap of this jacket our blurb writer replied, ‘I’m not going to waste my time. Everyone knows master athlete Peter Snell and this is his story. Surely that’s enough’.”

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