Todd Krieble: Where does Peter Snell's singlet belong?

By Todd Krieble

Runner Peter Snell's historic 1964 Tokyo Olympics NZ representative running singlet is on auction at Cordy's. Todd Krieble outlines why he thinks it should be preserved for all to enjoy.
Former Olympic gold medalist Peter Snell. Photo / Getty Images
Former Olympic gold medalist Peter Snell. Photo / Getty Images

My late father-in-law told me more than once how annoyed he was at being called away from Whanganui the night Peter Snell ran a world record mile at Cooks Gardens in January 1962. He'd be annoyed too at seeing Snell's black singlet up for auction.

Auctions are a great way to place monetary values on items and allow those buyers with the highest willingness to pay to secure a good or service. Auctions can be very efficient for allocating scarce resources when the marginal cost equals the marginal benefit for an individual.

But what if the monetary amount reached in an auction doesn't capture all of the value streams associated with that item? Is the auction then still a sensible and efficient way to trade something as unique as Peter Snell's singlet?

The answer is often "no".

Peter Snell's singlet has important non-market value to New Zealanders that can't be captured by an auction.

The market fails to account for social benefits like national pride and historical value if the singlet ends up in a private man cave. That is why we have a Protected Objects Act and acquisition budgets in national heritage bodies like Te Papa.

As every household knows, you can't keep everything, but you hold on to the memories that really matter.

Anyone who has been to Iffley Road, the site of Roger Bannister's 4 minute mile at Oxford in 1954, will tell you what hallowed ground that is for British athletics and British pride more generally. Bannister's feat wasn't just about running. It was about planning and executing a mission at the frontier of human performance that many at the time thought impossible. The legacy of Bannister and his club mates is there on display at Oxford for future generations to appreciate.

Snell's story is a story of nationhood too. It should be celebrated and shared by all New Zealanders. But we shouldn't have to wait for an auction to snap into action.

The recent changes to the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act quietly passed into law in 2014 by Hon. Chris Finlayson pave the way for designating national historic landmarks. The idea is that, with resources being scarce, national historic landmarks get priority funds and get looked after properly. Very few people seem to know about the landmark legislation.

New Zealand Institute of Economic Research senior economist Todd Krieble.
New Zealand Institute of Economic Research senior economist Todd Krieble.

The bar is set high and strong community support is required for designation. We don't have a single one yet.

There are stories from the Otago goldfields to Waitangi that can be pulled together and properly curated. New Zealanders from all walks of life need more of these stories especially with the nation diversifying as rapidly as it is. It is important for social cohesion and a sense of belonging.

National historic landmarks can be used not just to better integrate society, places and things. They are a great way to promote regional New Zealand's culture and heritage tourism.

Overseas tourists understand what national historic landmark designation means. They are magnet destinations and distribute the New Zealand story geographically in line with the social and economic history of the country.

For my money, although I won't be bidding in the auction, Snell's singlet belongs in Whanganui at Cooks Gardens.

Cooks Gardens may or may not meet the test for national historic landmark status under the new legislation, but these are the sorts of conversation we should be having up and down the country if we are to retain and celebrate our taonga.

The running singlet, under glass with photographs and signed book is currently on auction at Cordy's.

- NZ Herald

Todd Krieble is a senior economist at the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research.

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