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True greatness: Peter Snell at 70. Photo/Jane Ussher

Sir Peter Snell: 1938–2019

We will not see his like again, writes Paul Thomas.

It’s sometimes said, when the great ones depart, that “we’ll never see their like again”.

In truth, it’s said more often than it should be. Precious few people in any field of endeavour are beyond comparison with the best of their generation and several generations to come.

Sir Peter Snell, who died on December 12, aged 80, at his home in Dallas, was one of the very few who ascend to that stratospheric plane. In the five-and-a-half decades since he bestrode the athletics world like a colossus, we have not seen his equal.

He took the global stage at the 1960 Rome Olympics, winning gold in a thrilling 800m final. He did the 880 yards/mile double at the 1962 Perth British Empire and Commonwealth Games and, for a while, it seemed as if hardly a week went by without him setting a world record. He set world marks over 800m, 880 yards, 1000m, the mile and in the 4 x 1 mile relay. His 800m time remains a New Zealand record. Set in February 1962, it is the fastest ever time on a grass track.

At the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, he became the first male to achieve the 800/1500m double since 1920. It hasn’t been done by a male since.

Snell crossing to claim gold in the 1500m at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Photo/Getty Images

Snell retired the following year, aged 26, and embarked on studies in human performance and exercise physiology in the US. He became an associate professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre and director of the university’s Human Performance Laboratory.

Athletics historian Peter Heidenstrom nominated Yvette Williams, who also died this year, as the New Zealand athlete of the century. She was indeed astonishingly versatile, holding national titles in six events. Respective achievements aside, most observers would opt for Snell on the basis of his utter dominance.

Referencing Jack Lovelock, John Walker, Murray Halberg, Dick Quax and Rod Dixon, “all incredibly great runners”, Olympic 1500m silver and bronze medallist Nick Willis said, “A lot of my motivation in my career is to see how I can match up against the pantheon of New Zealand athletes. You try to get as close to Walker as you can, or some of these other guys. But there’s never been a sense of trying to be better than Peter Snell. There was never a sense that was even possible.”

The photo of Snell winning the 1500m in Tokyo is worth any number of words. The runners in his wake, including Kiwi John Davies, who finished third, have their heads thrown back and faces screwed into the rictus of extreme effort. Snell, the man in black, No 466, hits the tape with his arms almost bashfully raised shoulder high. His face is as composed as someone sitting for a portrait.

The expression and gesture suggest he’s not remotely drained by the exertion nor remotely surprised by the outcome. This is an athlete who realises, in that instant, that he has achieved true greatness and is submitting to history’s embrace.