Sir Peter Snell, one of Aotearoa’s greatest athletes, dies

By Te Ao - Māori News
Peter Snell.  Photo/YouTube

Sir Peter Snell, Olympic champion middle-distance runner, has died today at his home in the USA. He was 80.

He is most remembered for his three gold medals at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, held in Rome and Tokyo respectively. In Tokyo, he won both the 800 metre and 1500 metre races, in what was a comparatively brief but incredibly dominant international athletics career.

Snell was born in Opunake, then moved to Te Aroha where he began his running career. He eventually attended Mt Albert Grammar School in Auckland, where he also discovered a talent for tennis, entering the NZ Junior Championships in the 1950s.

He claimed gold in Rome in what became known as New Zealand’s Olympic ‘Golden Hour’, in which he won the 800 metre race, which was then followed by Murray Halberg winning the 5000 metres. Both men were coached by the legendary Arthur Lydiard, who remains one of the most influential mentors in athletics history.

Four years later, Snell created even more history by claiming two gold medals in Tokyo, defending his 800m title and then winning the 1500m. Two New Zealand flags flew that day, as fellow Kiwi John Davies claimed bronze.

However, Snell’s greatest achievement on New Zealand soil was setting a world record for the mile at Cook’s Gardens in Whanganui in 1962. A week later, he set a new 800m world record in Christchurch.

Snell retired from competitive running in 1965 aged only 27. He was never comfortable with the fame he accumulated during his life and moved away from New Zealand, studying at various US universities, earning a PhD in sports physiology, before becoming a research fellow at the University of Texas Southwestern in 1981. He made Dallas his home from then on.

Snell was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2002, which was retroactively converted to a knighthood in 2009. A life-size bronze statue of him stands in Opunake. 

According to his wishes, Snell will be cremated in a private ceremony in Dallas.