Editorial: Peter Snell's long-held resentment deeply sad

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Sir Peter Snell. Photo / NZPA
Sir Peter Snell. Photo / NZPA

New Zealanders will be surprised and disappointed at remarks by Sir Peter Snell during an international athletics function in Barcelona at the weekend.

Asked why he had settled in the United States, he explained that he went there at the end of his running career to do an undergraduate degree, intending to return to New Zealand and be a fitness consultant.

"Then I got turned on to research," he said, "and after seven years, New Zealand wasn't interested but the US was and I got offered a post-graduate fellowship in Dallas, got married to a Texan and that was it."

So far, so familiar. But he went further.

"New Zealand is weird in that respect," he added. "They admire the results but they don't want to help you out professionally. They do it all the time. They did it to Russell Coutts, who then went to Switzerland and took the [America's] Cup away. I loved that."

The are several things "weird" about that statement, none of them to do with New Zealand. Sir Peter is harbouring a grudge that is now 40 years old. He made his disappointment known at the time and did not hide it whenever he came back here and was asked why he lived in the US.

But never before has he expressed it with the bitterness he made evident at the International Association of Athletics Federations' gala occasion in Barcelona.

To compare his treatment with that of Sir Russell Coutts was weird in the extreme. Sir Russell could have stayed with Team New Zealand for a second America's Cup defence but took a higher offer. By doing so, he ensured he will never have quite the place in New Zealand's esteem that Sir Peter has.

It may be said of Sir Russell, though, that he has never blamed this country for his decision to continue his career in another. It was his choice and he took responsibility for it. Sir Peter seems to think New Zealand owed him a place for his professional research in return for his Olympic achievements.

Is it possible that he has been out of the country for so long that he does not realise the height of the pedestal on which his country still places him? It seems hardly possible. He has frequently been asked back to receive accolades and recognition over the years. As recently as the millennium, he was hailed as our greatest sports figure of the 20th century.

Yet if he really knew the place he occupies in our national pantheon it is hard to believe he would put it at risk with a comment such as he made about the loss of the America's Cup. Let us assume it was careless - an overstatement of his feelings, uttered without much thought to an audience far away that he was trying to impress.

The Peter Snell remembered by those old enough to have seen him run will always be a sublime figure, a Kiwi ideal, who glided around the tracks, relaxed, his arms low, running his own race, choosing his moment to turn on the blistering pace that left the rest of the field in his wake.

He is still the only athlete to have won the Olympic middle-distance double, 800m and 1500m at Tokyo in 1964. It speaks volumes for his status in the world of athletics that he was in Barcelona last weekend, in the company of other all-time greats.

There, he paid tribute to his New Zealand coach, the late Arthur Lydiard, and regretted that Lydiard's endurance training had dropped out of favour several decades ago now. With his PhD in physiology, he also said he was "underwhelmed" by the contribution sports science is making to middle-distance running.

Dr Snell is not the first scientist who has had to make his career outside New Zealand. His lasting resentment is deeply sad.

- NZ Herald

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