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16 Oct 1964
Tokyo 1964

Snell draws on reserves for middle-distance double

Track and Field

It was four years since New Zealand’s Peter Snell had taken a surprise victory in the Olympic 800m but, in the intervening years, he had turned from a relative unknown into a star of the sport.

Two years after that shock win in Rome, Snell had enjoyed an extraordinary week during which he broke the world record in both the 800m and the mile, his two favourite distances. He continued in that rich form on his way to the Tokyo Games and arrived in Japan as the frontrunner for both the 800m and the 1500m – the mile, of course, was not on the Olympic schedule.

Snell himself was not even sure of entering both events, whatever the world might be saying. He was focused on the 1500m, even though his focus on dominating over a mile meant he had never actually raced at the slightly shorter 1500m distance in his entire career. Only at the last minute did he decide to go for the middle-distance double.

The first of them was his defence of the 800m. The early leader was the Kenyan Wilson Kiprugut, who was at the front for nearly a lap and a half, but then found himself passed by Snell and watched the champion win by half a second in a new Olympic record. Canada’s Bill Crothers took silver while Kiprugut held on for a bronze, Kenya’s first Olympic medal.

A few days later, and running in his sixth race in just eight days, Snell took to the line for the 1500m. He said he had held something back for the event, and it could barely have worked out better. Comparatively slow for the first three laps, Snell emerged from the pack with a burst of speed that saw him run 200m in 25 seconds, leaving the rest of the field way behind him. He won with ease, a second and a half clear of the field despite slowing down as he approached the line.

Snell was only 25 years old, and now a triple Olympic gold medallist. The following year, he set world records atin both the 1000m and mile – and then surprised the sporting world by announcing his retirement “to try other things”. He never raced again but, in 2000, he was still voted as his country’s greatest sporting champion of the past 100 years. His best time for the 800m, set in 1962, remains New Zealand’s national record half a century later.

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