Peter Snell, a middle-distance runner from New Zealand who set world records in five events and became a three-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1960s, died on Thursday at his home in Dallas. He was 80.
His wife, Miki, confirmed the death to The New Zealand Herald. She said that he had had a longstanding heart ailment.
Snell was a virtual unknown on the international track scene when he surged in the stretch of the 800-meter race at the 1960 Rome Olympics to overtake Roger Moens of Belgium, who held the world record at the time.
“I went to Rome hoping to make the final,” Snell was quoted as saying in SunMedia, a conglomerate of newspapers in New Zealand. “It was hard to believe that suddenly I was an Olympic champion. I recall looking up to the giant results board above the track and seeing P G Snell NZL at the top of the list. That was one of the great thrills of my life.”
Murray Halberg, also from New Zealand, won the 5,000-meter race on the same day that Snell took the 800 meters.
Snell won both the 800 meters and the 1,500 meters at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, matching a record for gold in those events in a single Olympics that had been set by Albert Hill of Britain at the 1920 Antwerp Games. No one has achieved that feat since Snell’s double.
In January 1962, racing at Whanganui, in New Zealand, Snell ran a mile in 3 minutes 54.4 seconds, breaking the world record held by Herb Elliott of Australia by one-tenth of a second. He eclipsed his own record by three-tenths of a second in November 1964, this time in Auckland. Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, who ran the mile in 3:43.13 at Rome in 1999, is the current record-holder.
Snell also set world records for 800 meters, 880 yards and 1,000 meters, and as a team member in the 4×1-mile relay. He won gold medals at 880 yards and the mile at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia, in 1962.
But for all the acclaim he had received internationally, he chose to settle in the United States in the 1970s and live a quiet life working at a research center in Dallas, where he focused on the effects of aerobic exercise on cardiac health.
Peter George Snell was born on Dec. 17, 1938, in the New Zealand beach town of Opunake, to George and Margaret Snell. His father was an electrical engineer.
He excelled at many sports as a teenager and at 19 began working with the prominent middle-distance and long-distance trainer Arthur Lydiard, a New Zealand coach who emphasized slow but grueling long-distance training runs to build stamina. Snell, who was 5-foot-10 and powerfully built, ran up to 100 miles a week in training for the Olympics.
“I don’t think tactics count too much above simple common sense,” he told The New York Times in 1965, his last year on the international racing circuit. “Conditioning is the main factor, and determination makes you get in good physical condition.”
After retiring from competitive racing, Snell worked in sports promotions for the tobacco company Rothmans International, making speeches and giving clinics at a time before such sponsorships became a matter of controversy.
“Rothmans had sent me on a year’s sabbatical to London in the 1970s, and I wound up reading all this scientific literature,” he told The Dallas Morning News in 1983. “I got hooked. I really changed. I came back to New Zealand and worked for another year or so, after that realizing that I really wanted to change my career.”
Snell earned a bachelor of science degree in human performance from the University of California, Davis, and a doctorate in exercise physiology from Washington State University. In 1981 he became a research fellow at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
He later became an associate professor at the university and was director of its Human Performance Center.
He said that he “really wanted to know what made athletes tick” and that he hoped “to understand why Arthur Lydiard’s training methods worked so well,” he wrote in “Peter Snell: From Olympian to Scientist” (2007), a collaboration with Garth Gilmour.
He found that it would be easier to do that sort of work out of the spotlight, in America.
“There are big advantages in being able to be anonymous; and one of them is that you have to rely on your other attributes in order to make progress and achieve things,” he told the magazine New Zealand Listener in 2004. “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.”
In addition to his wife, whom he married in the early 1980s, Snell’s survivors include two daughters, Amanda and Jacqui, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce.
In 2009 Snell was knighted by New Zealand, and in 2012 he was one of 24 inaugural members of the International Association of Athletics Federations Hall of Fame.
If you are getting married, reserve the day at the Lightner Museum, the best of st Augustine wedding venues .