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02 Sep 1960
Rome 1960

Snell times his run to pip Moens in 800m

The favourite for the 800m was also the man who held the world record. Belgium's Roger Moens was thought to have only one serious challenger – namely George Kerr, from Jamaica.

Few had paid much attention to the New Zealander Peter Snell, at least not until the second semi-final, in which Snell beat Moens to victory in a time of 1 minute 47.2 seconds, smashing his own personal best. Still, though, Kerr's victory in the first semi-final got more attention, and most assumed that Moens had simply been conserving energy.

Snell was a fine sportsman. Growing up in Waikato, he had excelled not just at running, but also at rugby union, cricket and badminton. As a junior tennis player, he had taken part in the national championships. Only when he was 19 – just a couple of years before the Rome Games - did he concentrate fully on running, guided by his inspirational coach Arthur Lydiard.

His first lap in the final did not have the hallmarks of greatness, though. Snell took the bell well back in the field and, worse still, looked to be boxed in by other runners. At the front, the Swiss athlete Christian Wägli was holding the lead with Moens lurking behind him.

Moens did not launch his attack until the runners had reached the back straight. He burst past Wägli and then looked back once, twice and then three times, always checking for Kerr. The Jamaican was, by now, out of the running, which perhaps prompted Moens to relax ever so slightly. Perhaps he thought the race was already won. He certainly didn't seem to be looking out for Snell.

By now the New Zealander had found his way through to the inside lane and had discovered reserves of energy not normally associated with the closing stages of an Olympic final. He sprinted for the line, edged past Moens and crossed in a new Olympic record time of 1 minute 46.3 seconds. And yet while all of the spectators in the stadium could see that he was the champion, Snell himself was not sure.

Instead, he asked the nearest person, who happened to be Moens. “Who won?” said Snell. “You did,” came the reply.

All of a sudden, the unknown runner had become a global star. Four years later in Tokyo, he successfully defended his 800m title and added a 1,500m gold to his collection.

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