20 NZ Olympic moments: No. 1, Snell, Halberg's golden double

By David Leggat, Dylan Cleaver

A desperate lunge at the line saw Peter Snell win gold from Belgian Roger Moens in the 800m. Photo / Herald Archives
A desperate lunge at the line saw Peter Snell win gold from Belgian Roger Moens in the 800m. Photo / Herald Archives

Herald sports writers Dylan Cleaver and David Leggat have chosen the Peter Snell-Murray Halberg 1960 Rome gold medal double as our greatest Olympic moment.

New Zealanders win everlasting athletics fame within the space of an hour They arrived in Rome for the 1960 Olympics a contrasting pair. One a relatively unknown 21-year-old; the other 27 and in his prime.

In the space of an hour on September 2 that year, Peter Snell and Murray Halberg blazed New Zealand's name in capitals across the Olympic landscape and achieved everlasting athletics fame.

Snell won the 800m title, Halberg the 5000m crown; both men were trained by Arthur Lydiard.

First Snell. Belgian policeman Roger Moens, a former world record holder, was the favourite. Jamaican George Kerr and Swiss frontrunner Christian Waegli were other highly rated runners.

Famous American crooner Bing Crosby took his seat in the stands, and eyeing the six runners asked an American journalist: "Who's the big guy in black?" "That's Snell from Noo Zealand," the writer replied. "He's run okay but the pressure will get to him. He hasn't a show."

Snell got up to Moens with 30m to go and, with a desperate lunge, pipped the Belgian at the tape.

He didn't know he'd won until the shattered Moens told him.

"Rome was absolutely thrilling, a disbelief-type thrilling. I was 21 and not much more than four years earlier I was third in my high school 880 yards, and by quite a large margin."

Halberg was in a small room halfway down a tunnel leading from the warmup track to the stadium. He'd won gold at the Cardiff Empire Games two years earlier, his form was good and he felt confident.

As the runners were led down towards the track, Halberg asked officials coming the other way: "Who won the 800m?"

"They were looking a bit stunned," Halberg recalled. "They said 'Schnell'. I couldn't believe it. That for me was the last piece of the jigsaw. I consciously remember a thought pattern, saying to myself, 'Pete's won it, so can I'."

Three laps from the end Halberg ran clear. At the line he collapsed, clutching the tape. The medals were presented by New Zealand's first Olympic running medallist, Sir Arthur Porritt, bronze medal winner in the 100m in 1924. Accident or design?

Snell's respect for Halberg remains undimmed.

"He was looked up to by everyone. I felt he had the presence of a champion in the village."

Snell's 800m-1500m gold double at Tokyo four years later helped make him New Zealand's Athlete of the Century.

Two years ago he was asked to name his supreme performance among the multitude of great days.

"Rome," he said. "I gave it everything and couldn't have done any better. Yes, that's it. Rome."

Asked the same question, Halberg had the same answer.

Some day. Maybe Porritt had sensed something special was about to unfold.

- NZ Herald

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