Olympic mile, 800-meter champion Peter Snell dead at 80
Three-time Olympic champion and world mile record-holder Peter Snell has died in Dallas. He was aged 80. Snell, who is regarded as one of the greatest middle-distance runners, won the 800 meters at the 1960 Rome Olympics aged 21, and the 800-1,500 double at the 1964 Tokyo Games.
He was the first man since 1920 to win the 800 and 1,500 at the same Olympics. No male athlete has done so since.
Snell also won two Commonwealth Games gold medals in the 880 yards and mile at Perth in 1962.
He twice held the mile world record, and held world records in the 800 meters, 880 yards, 1,000 meters, and the 4x1-mile relay.
Snell’s death was confirmed by family friend and New Zealand sports historian Ron Palenski, who heads New Zealand’s Sport Hall of Fame.
“It is very sad news, a grievous loss for New Zealand,” Palenski said. “In terms of track and field, he is probably the greatest athlete New Zealand has had.” Snell was coached by Arthur Lydiard, an innovator who was regarded as one of the world’s finest coaches of middle and long distance athletes. Lydiard also coached Murray Halberg to win the 5,000 meters at Rome in 1960.
Snell was the best miler of his generation, at a time when the mile was the blue riband event of world athletics. He began immediately after Roger Bannister’s epoch-making sub-four-minute mile and while the glow of that achievement still suffused the sport.
In his physique he was unlike milers of the time: Snell was strong and powerful — more like a 400-meter runner — and not like the mostly lithe athletes who vied for world supremacy over the mile.
His stride was so powerful he often scarred the tracks on which he ran, kicking up puffs of debris, especially on grass or cinder tracks. Lydiard’s training — based on massive mileage mostly on the road rather than the track — gave him enormous stamina but he also had unusual speed.
Snell’s friend and training partner, Olympic marathon bronze medalist Barry Magee said “there will never be another New Zealand athlete like him.” “He won three Olympic gold medals, two Commonwealth Games gold medals, and broke seven world records. He was the best-conditioned athlete of his time.” Snell’s wife, Miki, said he died suddenly at his home in Dallas around noon on Thursday. He had been suffering from a heart ailment and required a pacemaker for several years.
Snell’s athletics career was relatively short. He retired in 1965 to pursue educational opportunities in the United States.
Snell graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in human performance from the University of California, Davis, and later with a Ph.D. in exercise physiology from Washington State University.
He became a research fellow at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in 1981, later becoming director of the university’s Human Performance Center.
Snell was knighted by New Zealand in 2009. A statue in his honor stands at Cooks Gardens, Whanganui, near his birthplace of Opunake, where he broke the mile world record for the first time in 1962.