Mile News

Remembering how Snell tore up the Tokyo track for historic Olympic double

October 21, 2020

“We were helpless. My chief memory down the final straight is of Peter’s huge legs ripping great chunks of cinders out of the track with his powerful stride.”

By Len Johnson for World Athletics

On October 21, 1964, nine men lined up for the Tokyo Olympic 1500m final. Three minutes and 38.1 seconds later, New Zealand’s Peter Snell became the first man in 44 years to complete an Olympic 800m / 1500m double, adding a third gold medal to the one that he had shocked the world in Rome four years prior over 800m.

As with most Olympic victories, it was not so much the winning as the manner of winning which took the eye. To describe Snell’s Tokyo victories in the 800m and 1500m as emphatic is almost inadequate. He destroyed both fields with tremendous bursts of speed over the closing stages – eye-catching for onlookers, lung-bursting for opponents.

Snell’s teammate John Davies, the 1500m bronze medallist, summed up graphically for the defeated. “All of us were sprinting as fast as we could,” he told New Zealand journalist Joseph Romanos in an interview for the book Arthur’s Boys, “yet none of us could stay with Peter.

“We were helpless. My chief memory down the final straight is of Peter’s huge legs ripping great chunks of cinders out of the track with his powerful stride.”

Those same legs had been reduced to jelly, and Snell to a blubbering wreck, on his first experience of the Waiatarua, coach Arthur Lydiard’s 22-mile circuit through the Waitakere Ranges that was the staple of his athletes’ endurance build-up. Reduced to a walk, then a stagger, Snell got to the finish at Murray Halberg’s home and, as he wrote later in No Bugles, No Drums, “tottered in, collapsed on a sofa and burst into tears.”

Snell was a big man for a middle-distance runner. That size came into its own in Tokyo where his most vulnerable moments came when boxed in at vital stages of both finals. In the 800m, Snell simply dropped out of the box as the field entered the back straight second time around before sweeping around the other seven finalists to defeat Canada’s Bill Crothers and Kenya’s Wilson Kiprugut decisively.

Locked in approaching the bell in the 1500m, British pair John Whetton and Alan Simpson to his outside, Snell stuck his arm out like a driver signalling a turn. Whetton obligingly gave him some room, and Snell was clear on his run into history. Poland’s Witold Baran and Davies contested the lead down the back straight but once Snell burst past with just before 200 meters remaining, the result was never in doubt.

At the biggest moment in his career, Snell compellingly demonstrated what Lydiard described as his remarkable ability “(to) explode and put 10 meters on any field, even when the others were in full flight.”

Snell ran his last 300 meters in 38.6 and his last lap in 53.2, despite unleashing his full sprint only in the last 220 meters. The only faster time in Olympic history at that point was Herb Elliott’s world record of 3:35.6 set in Rome four years earlier. Snell’s 1:45.1 in the 800m in Tokyo was an Olympic record and the second-fastest performance of all-time behind only his own world record of 1:44.3.

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Tags: tokyo 1964 (4) , peter snell (32) , arthur lydiard (9)

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