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Whenever New Zealanders recall the nation's great sporting deeds, the events of September 2, 1960, will always occupy a prominent place.

That was the day of the "Golden Hour" when Sir Peter Snell and Sir Murray Halberg indelibly inked the country's name on the Rome Olympic Games canvas.

The bare facts are these: Snell won the 800m gold medal in Olympic record time, then Halberg triumphed in the 5000m. Both were trained by the remarkable Arthur Lydiard.

Two men scaled the ultimate athletic peak on a warm late afternoon in Rome. It was far from the only notable achievement in a pair of stellar careers but their names will forever be linked in hearts and minds for that day.

They arrived in Rome in starkly different positions - one a favourite, 27, and in his prime; the other a relatively unknown 21-year-old.

One might have been a rugby and tennis-playing quantity surveyor; the other spent four years determined to right an athletic wrong.

As on the day 50 years ago next Thursday, let's start with Snell.

As a 17-year-old, hewent from Te Aroha to board at Mt Albert Grammar. He was the best runner in the Waikato town but he was a rugby player who fancied becoming the country's best tennis player.

Running at his new school, he came up against the country's two top juniors, Mike Macky and Tony Aston. He trailed them home by about 80m in the mile, around 40m in the 880 yards.

"I was badly beaten, to the extent I didn't see I had much of a future in running. They were so superior," Snell recalled this week.

Move forward a couple of years and the fast-developing Snell won the inter-secondary schools 880 yards in a record time, 1min 59.6. Then came a pivotal moment when the direction of Snell's life took a sharp and permanent change.

Running for Waikato against Auckland in January 1958, Snell won the 880 yards in 1min 54s. Macky, then being trained by Lydiard, rushed up to him. You've got to meet Arthur, was the gist of the chat.

"That was a defining point for me," Snell said.

As the Games approached, Snell had done some calculations. He knew what time he was capable of, looked back at the Melbourne Olympic final times of 1956 and figured he could be in the frame, perhaps even for a minor medal.

He remembers at one point being ranked around No 25 in the world. "Under today's ridiculous criteria I wouldn't have made the team because people would have said, okay, you're not going to make the final'.

"But there were other circumstances the selectors were wise about. The curve of improvement was going up."

Snell arrived in Rome an unknown, not fancied to make an impact. The favourite was Belgian policeman Roger Moens, who had been a world recordholder.

Jamaican George Kerr was well regarded, as was Swiss frontrunner Christian Waegli. "I didn't know who they were in Rome, other than the names and the times. But going in I felt pretty certain I would do well."

Before the heats there was a development Snell, in retrospect, believes was important to what followed.

The entry for the 800m was larger than expected, so an extra round of heats was added. That meant heats and quarter-finals were squeezed into one day, with semifinals the next day and the final another day after.

"Arthur said 'this is perfect for you because you'll have had more endurance conditioning than anyone else in the field'. And he was right."

His heat had three well-ranked runners in it, two top 800m men and Hungarian Istvan Rozsavolgyi, who won the 1500m bronze a few days later. Snell was written off.

He won in a personal best 1:48.1.

By this stage, "Arthur and I were feeling medals were a distinct possibility. Arthur was saying gold, but I tend to try and downplay things a bit, just in case."

He was a comfortable second in the quarter-final, but Lydiard and Snell's strategy for the next day's semifinal was to beat Moens. "Hopefully [if I won] that would put doubts in his mind, and I was able to do that. 1:47.2, and it felt great."

As the finalists lined up, singing legend Bing Crosby took his seat in the stand. Eyeing the six runners he asked an American journalist: "Who's the big guy in black?"

"That's Snell from New Zealand," came the reply. "He's run okay but the pressure will get to him. He hasn't a show."

They knew the final would be fast. Waegli would see to that. The strategy was for Snell to make his move about midway down the back straight, keep out of trouble, and position himself for the finish.

Instead Moens went past. Snell couldn't pull the move he wanted, so he hung close to the pole line. "At that stage I believed I had blown my chances of winning."

But Snell found a gap as they rounded the curve. Moens had run wide to cover Kerr. Snell got to Moens with about 30m left.

"We were pretty much locked together and I just nipped him on the tape. But I didn't actually know it.

"He was running a couple of lanes outside me. I think he was probably trying to run Kerr wide and totally ignored the threat I posed.

"I was close to the line and I saw the tape and it was unbroken. Basically I shut my eyes."

His immediate emotion? Snell confirmed an old story: he didn't know who had won, until the shattered Moens told him.

"It's really hard to describe. It was disbelief that this was actually happening to me. It was a dreamlike thing. Is this real?

"Four years later in Tokyo [when Snell won the 800m and 1500m golds] it was relief, and great satisfaction. 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."

As this was happening Halberg, with the other 5000m finalists, was in a small room halfway down a tunnel leading from the warmup track to the stadium.

He felt good, knew his form was strong and had won the gold at the Cardiff Empire Games two years earlier, but events in Melbourne in 1956, when he was 11th in the 1500m, provided a powerful incentive.

"I did not do too well at Melbourne. I was quite resolved that when I returned to the Olympic arena it would not be as someone who was an also-ran."

The gold at Cardiff over three miles and his general progress meant he was one the others were eyeing. That was fine by him.

"Certainly I was not avoiding the tag of favourite but it was more to assure the rest of the men in the field that I was the one to beat. I felt comfortable in that role."

As the runners were led down towards the track he saw officials coming the other way. He knew the 800m had just been run.

"They were looking a bit stunned. I said 'who won the 800m?' They said 'Schnell' .

"I could not 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, 20, 25, 30m. From then on "it simply became a matter of staying on my feet and keep moving forward until I finally got there".

It was a tactic he had used to win in Cardiff and was surprised no one had followed him. At the line Halberg collapsed, still clutching the tape. Among the first to reach him was Snell.

"Peter was really quite concerned. He tells me he leant over me and said 'are you all right Muzz? Are you all right?' Of course, Muzz didn't respond that instant."

The final cherry on top for Halberg was the medal presentation from New Zealand's 1924 Olympic sprint bronze medallist Sir Arthur Porritt. Accident or design?

"Apparently he came to the New Zealand headquarters and asked which would be a good day to present medals. The message was given to him that this would be the day he should present medals." Someone knew something.

Snell's respect for Halberg shines through half a century on. "He was looked up to by everyone. I felt he had the presence of a champion in the village, just like [running legends] Emil Zatopek and Herb Elliott.

"He had great status and I enjoyed being around him."

More great deeds followed in the years ahead. Snell bestrode the athletic world like a colossus for the next four years. He gathered eight world records and golds in the 800m and 1500m at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

Halberg won gold at the 1962 Empire Games in Perth, having taken four world records the previous year. Besides Rome his name lives on through the Halberg Trust to support children with disabilities. He was knighted in 1988 and received the Order of New Zealand two years ago.

Snell, after moving to California in 1974, carved out a successful career in sports science and fitness. He has lived in Dallas since 1981 and was knighted last year.

How good was he? His 800m world record on grass at Lancaster Park in 1962 would have won him the gold at the Beijing Olympics 46 years later. That will do.

A final question: is there one race you felt you could not have run any better, the pinnacle, the supreme run, among all those marvellous performances?

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

Halberg: "I guess you've got to answer that the ultimate is to win at that level. Years of preparation and execution came to that conclusion.

"There was another occasion when I was so supremely fit that however the race evolved I would win. That was Perth [1962]. But certainly I'd have to say Rome."

Footnote: Canterbury thrower Val Sloper, nee Young, was competing in the shot put that day. "I believe someone has seen the film [of Halberg's final] and on one curve an athlete in a black tracksuit was jumping up and down shouting," Halberg chuckled. "That was her, not ideal stuff during her competition, but she was drawn to it." As was the nation. Sloper finished a close fourth.

Peter Snell's record
* Sept 2 1960: Olympic 800m gold medal, Rome
* July 17, 1961: World 4 x 1 mile record, Dublin
* Jan 27, 1962: World mile record, Wanganui
* Feb 3, 1962: World 800m and 880 yard records, Christchurch
* Feb 10, 1962: World indoor 1000 yard record, Los Angeles
* March 18, 1962: World 880 yard indoor record, Tokyo
* Nov 26 and Dec 1, 1962: Commonwealth 880 yard and mile gold * medals, Perth
* Oct 16 and 21, 1964: Olympic 800m and 1500m gold medals, Tokyo
* Nov 12, 1964: World 1000m record, Western Springs
* Nov 17, 1964: World mile record, Western Springs

Murray Halberg's record
* July 1958: Empire and Commonwealth Games three- mile gold medal, Cardiff
* Sept 2, 1960: Olympics 5000m gold medal, Rome
* Jan 14, 1961: World two-mile indoor record, Portland, Oregon
* July 7, 1961: World two-mile record, Jyvaskyla, Finland
* July 17, 1961: World 4 x 1 mile record, Dublin
* July 25, 1961: World three-mile record, Stockholm
* Nov 26, 1962: Empire and Commonwealth Games three- mile gold medal, Perth