There were at least two Peter Snells – one, the gloriously muscular, stylish athlete who won three Olympic gold medals; the other the free thinker, scientist and expat.
Many who witnessed him in his athletic pomp have themselves gone; those who remember his 800m gold medal in Rome in 1960 are fewer in number. Those unforgettable double gold medals over 800m and 1500m in Tokyo, four years later, were immortalised by some writers who knew Snell better but who are, alas, also no longer with us.
When you think of Snell the athlete, you remember not just the triumphs – including two Commonwealth games gold medals and seven world records – but the form, the style. He wasn't just a middle distance runner; he looked like a rugby player. He had muscles in all the places where they looked good and that long-striding style spoke of power as well as efficiency. His rivals, world-class though they might be, looked a bit puny in comparison – whippets to Snell's greyhound.
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My first contact was as a small boy at Western Springs in 1964; my mum took me to witness Snell's attempt at his own world mile record. He smashed it by three seconds. Snell and 20,000 baying fans made a deep impression on that small boy.
Years later, in conversation, I tried to tell him about being there that night. His humility asserted itself; he did what he so often did in such circumstances – changed the subject away from himself.
He was a very New Zealand athlete, you see. He had a large stores of intelligence to go with the sportsman's frame but did not parade it. Humility in those days was de rigeur – woe betide the Kiwi sportsman or woman who put a toe over the line of self-effacement and into "I am…" territory. Snell's humility was entirely natural.
That's partly why Kiwis loved him. He was also the embodiment of New Zealand health and (natural) wealth – a strong man with a humble outlook raised on New Zealand milk, eggs and lamb (metaphorically speaking) and trained on our roads and hills, beating the world.
His decision to move to the US puzzled many. It's fair to say he distanced himself a bit to pursue his academic/scientific career in human performance and exercise physiology (the latter the subject of his PhD), and his research and associate professorship at the University of Texas.
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He told the Listener, in 2004: "I've translocated myself into a place where they don't care [about medals]. And that is really perfect … because I now am able to totally disassociate from that Olympic background, and un-me.
"…there are big advantages in being able to be anonymous; one of them is that you have to rely on your other attributes to make progress and achieve things. If I was still living here in New Zealand I'd be tending to think that I deserved to be given things or treated differently or whatever. I don't have those expectations in the United States. Here in New Zealand I still actually feel some conformity pressure to be something that I may not necessarily be comfortable with."
That said, he also greatly missed New Zealand – his friends, lifestyle and the outdoors. But his academic and scientific future was settled when he'd gained his PhD but felt no one in New Zealand seemed interested in his CV.
One of the last contacts I had with him was a few years back when we spoke and emailed on a pet theme of his – administrators holding sway over athletes. He was commenting on a dispute with New Zealand canoeing officials that saw Olympic heroes Ian Ferguson and Paul MacDonald threatened with dumping from the sport.
Snell told me then, using the America's Cup as an example: "We had a guy there who was on top of the game [Sir Russell Coutts] and won us the Cup. Then they said to him, 'Russell, you just drive the boat and we'll take care of business' and, when he jumped ship, they found it wasn't so easy to steer the boat.
"That's a bit of a stretch, maybe, but I remember the old way in New Zealand sport - like track and field, for example - when the administrators thought they were the most important people; that the sport couldn't exist without them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"You can't tell me high performance management can take the credit for what New Zealand athletes like Valerie Adams and Nick Willis have done … I hope high performance managers don't think they are most important because they hold the purse strings."
His life as an athlete morphed into an emphasis on wellness, particularly among the ageing. He held close to the belief there were three great gifts people could give themselves: a university education, a fulfilling career (which had little to do with money) and a high level of wellness – a constant theme he practised by maintaining exercise levels he advised older people to follow to avoid their health packing up.
He said his goal was to make it to 90 as an independent human being sustained by activity and exercise. His heart condition put paid to that just a few days shy of what would have been his 81st birthday – one of the very few goals Sir Peter George Snell, New Zealand's greatest athlete, did not achieve.