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NZ athletics legend/Olympian Peter Snell dies, aged 80

New Zealand’s greatest Olympian, Sir Peter Snell, was planning on a roast dinner and a game of table tennis when he died in Dallas, aged 80.

Snell’s wife Miki told Stuff her husband was having a good day, despite a health scare last month when he passed out while driving and crashed into several parked vehicles.

“He was having a good day, he felt good, he had gone and done some activities, and was planning on doing more – he wanted to play table tennis,” Miki said. “He lay down to watch the news on TV and fell asleep.

Peter Snell winning the 800 metres at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
APPeter Snell winning the 800 metres at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

“I tried to wake him up but he wouldn’t move. The paramedics came in about five minutes but they couldn’t wake him.”

Snell won three Olympic gold medals – the first in the 800 metres in 1960 in Rome – and is the only male since 1920 to win the 800m and 1500m at the same Olympics, in 1964, in Tokyo.

Snell had been looking forward to his 81st birthday on Tuesday. He had had a recent history of heart trouble and a few weeks ago had to call off a trip to Monaco for a dinner honouring world mile recordholders.

“But I want people to know,” Miki said, “that he was living his life. He was not bed-ridden.”

“I’ve been in a preparatory mode, because I knew he was ill, he has been for 10 years.

“But he’s done very well, had good quality of life and did right up to his death. He was a major part of my life. It’s going to be a total readjustment for me, so it’s just very sad.

“It was a wonderful life we had, I am grateful for having a life with him, I wish it could have gone on forever.”

Under the tutelage of famed coach Arthur Lydiard, Snell became one of the most dominant middle-distance runners in history, claiming gold in the only three Olympic events he ever contested.

He set world records in the mile and 800m and also won dual gold at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth.

Snell surprised himself and the rest of the world when he pipped Belgium’s Roger Moens to win gold in the 800m in Rome in his first Olympic appearance.

He was then at the peak of his powers four years later at the Tokyo Olympics when he set a new Olympic record when defending his 800m title and made it three gold from as many events by easily winning the 1500m final.

His athletics career was relatively brief as he turned his sights to education after settling in the United States. He gained a Bachelor of Science in human performance from the University of California, Davis, and then a PhD in exercise physiology from Washington State University. He joined the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre at Dallas as a research fellow in 1981.

Snell was a big advocate for New Zealand to be a nation of participants.

“Get up from the couch and the computer and play something active,” he said.

“New Zealand’s health depends on it.”

Leading the tributes for Snell has been Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who on Saturday said Snell was “a legend, here and around the world. Our thoughts are with Sir Peter’s wife Miki and their family.”

Sports Minister Grant Robertson said Snell was a well loved Kiwi who “was world class, driven, determined and humble”. 

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