20 NZ Olympic moments: No. 2, Snell lights up cinders at Tokyo

By David Leggat, Dylan Cleaver

Herald sports writers Dylan Cleaver and David Leggat continue to count down New Zealand's great Olympic moments. Today, at number 2, we remember Peter Snell's 1964 double.You have to dig pretty deep to find the sort of sparkling anecdotes about Sir Peter Snell that enliven bar-room banter. Snell was not that sort of bloke, but in five days during October 1964, his broad shoulders and piston-like legs spoke of nothing but brilliance.

On October 16, he defended his 800m title in Olympic record time, and less than a week later, on the 21st, he lit up Tokyo's cinders again when cruising to a 1500m title by close to 10m.

Whereas his gold over the shorter distance in Rome four years earlier had been a pleasant surprise, this was nothing of the sort, but when has living up to expectations been anything but admirable?

His time in the 800m of 1m 45.1s was an Olympic record and a "long" half-second ahead of Canadian Bill Crothers, but his 3m 38.1s time in the 1500m did not please everybody.

World record holder Herb Elliott's eccentric coach Percy Cerruty was reportedly displeased with the sluggish time, ignoring the fact that Snell had run a perfectly judged race against men - as opposed to a race against the clock - and had blitzed his rivals with a scorching 53.2s last lap.

Snell's dominance was important, as it moved the country's sense of self-worth beyond the performances of the All Blacks and the amount of farm produce we could export.

At Parliament that day, the numbers in the chamber were reduced to 18, not enough for a quorum, during the running of the 1500m.

As Dr Martyn Finlay was addressing the House, the Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake, reportedly sprang to his feet after being spotted listening to a wireless.

"Point of order, Mr Speaker," he bellowed. "Peter Snell has won the 1500 by seven or eight yards."

That was Snell's final race at an Olympic or Commonwealth Games. He is considered, by some distance, to be the greatest athlete this country has produced - not a bad tag to have when you consider that the names of Lovelock, Walker and Adams are writ large across New Zealand's track and field history.

Incidentally, New Zealand's John Davies was pipped for silver by Czech athlete Josef Odlozil. He married fellow Czech Vera Caslavska, a seven-time Olympic gold medal gymnast, in Mexico City at the conclusion of the 1968 Games. The fairytale did not last. He separated from Caslavska and in 1993, aged 55, he was killed during a drunken altercation with his 19-year-old son.

Now that's the sort of juicy anecdote you'd never get with Snell.

- NZ Herald

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