A single sentence spoken by a coaching great to a fledgling runner in 1958 changed New Zealand's sporting headlines forever. The coach was Arthur Lydiard. The runner was all-round sportsman Peter Snell. The sentence was: "Peter, with the sort of speed you've got, if you do the endurance training, you could be one of our best middle-distance runners." Peter believed him: "I thought, 'Gee that's fantastic'." The Opunake-born athlete then joined the Lydiard stable and began his rise to Olympic fame.
More than 45 years after that life-changing conversation, Arthur explains what he saw in the 19-year-old runner. "Peter had a lot of speed, so all I had to do was give him endurance. He could follow the field and would kick them - that's what I could see," he says, from his Auckland home. "He was a complete athlete. It didn't matter what sport he took up he could apply himself. He had the speed, reflexes, the tactics - he also had the right temperament."
Before the 800-metre final at the Rome Olympics, Peter was sitting with long-distance star Murray Halberg and discus thrower and shot-putter Val Sloper (now Young). When Val asked Murray how he was feeling before his 5000-metre final, he admitted having butterflies in his stomach. Then she asked Peter about his nerves, but the young man was far away. "Peter was in a dream," Lydiard says. "All he said was, 'I just hope I can get that [Olympic] record back'."
When Peter won his semi-final, his time would've beaten the Olympic 800-metre record if it had not already been bettered by Jamaican George Kerr in the first semi-final. His resolve to own the record was all consuming. "He was as cold as ice," Lydiard says.
Peter admits he was like that; had to be like that to succeed. "You just shut off and focus and I think that's what helps to define those that can do it and those who seem to be promising and can't do it, because when they get into that stadium they just lose it."
When Peter raced, nothing else existed except the track, the other runners and his desire to win. "I never heard anyone screaming at me," he says. For the record, Peter won his 800-metre Olympic final in record time, followed straight afterwards by Murray, who won the 5000-metre gold medal.
Val Sloper tells her own story: "Peter Snell and Murray Halberg winning their gold medals within half an hour of each other was my downfall. If I had concentrated more, instead of encouraging them on each time they passed the shot circle, I may have had my Olympic medal."
Peter's one-track mind is captured in a photograph from his autobiography, No Bugles No Drums, co-written with former Taranaki Herald journalist Garth Gilmour. The athlete's face is intense, stony and so bloody determined it could be the face of a killer. In reality, the picture reveals an athlete possessed with the killer instinct, an attribute still with him today.
In September 2003, Peter won his section of the United States Orienteering Championships. "I did manage to make up a four-minute deficit going into day two and pulled off the men's 65+ title," he confirms in an email.
The month before, the Texas-based doctor of exercise physiology was in New Zealand visiting family, playing golf with friends, promoting the Peter Snell Institute of Sport on Auckland's North Shore and working with Garth Gilmour on a new book about the Third Age. This is about keeping fit, healthy and active in old age. Naturally, his trip included the obligatory press engagements.
He is late for the Puke Ariki interview, striding into his Auckland hotel wearing silver-blue track pants, orienteering T-shirt, hi-tech sports shoes and holding a Crunchie like a golden baton. "I can't get these," he waves the chocolate bar, after a sincere apology for his delay.
Peter is instantly recognisable. Only the extra lines on his face define the years that have passed since his powerful frame, dressed all in black, silver fern upon his chest, pounded to glory at Rome and Tokyo. Now, he looks back at the triumphs, the world records and the accolades with a clarity that comes with the passing of time.
In the beginning, Peter believed his future lay with tennis. As a teenager, he played in the Auckland and New Zealand Junior Tennis Championships. "I gave tennis a good shot, but I think I knew my limitations as a tennis player."
Athletics was a slow-burn path upwards and not always successful. After the Snells left Opunake in November 1949, Peter became an all-round sportsman in the Waikato. For years he dominated the middle-distance running events in his hometown of Te Aroha.
But that ceased when he attended Mount Albert Grammar School for Boys in Auckland. There, the teenager continued to excel at rugby, cricket, tennis, badminton and golf. But on the athletics track he was beaten to the finish line in the 880 yards (800 metres) by two specialist runners, Tony Aston and Michael Macky.
When his rivals left high school for university, Peter stayed behind to have another go at University Entrance. "So finally I get to win, but I'm 18 and a year older than everyone else, but still not running well enough to consider that I have a future in running," he says.
Back in Te Aroha for his last school summer holiday before finding a job, Peter had a breakthrough. At the annual New Year's Day athletics and cycling trophy meet, he ran a blinder. "The year before I'd won the handicapped 880 [yards] and this time they said, 'We don't want him winning this again'. So I had a tough handicap."
Most of the field started before Peter, but there was one man behind him. "I had 15 yards [13.7 metres] off a former New Zealand champion in 880 yards, a guy called Bill Baillie, and I thought, 'ooh, this isn't going to be good', but he never came past me and I won and I thought, 'Gee, I've beaten a New Zealand champion with a start of only 15 yards'," Peter says. "That was a defining moment."
He felt spurred to improve his pace with hopes of making the Waikato team. "Being the high achiever type I am who wants recognition, I started asking about how to train and got some advice and started doing it," Peter says.
His time improved in the trials and he made the Waikato team by a couple of seconds. At the end of January, the team competed against Auckland, with Peter racing in the 880 yards. "I win this event in a time, which is like another three seconds faster [than the trial]."
Watching him in the stands was Peter's old school rival Michael Macky. "He came excitedly down and said 'Gee what have you been doing?'" He then re-introduced Peter to Arthur Lydiard (Michael had taken Peter on a picnic run with the Lydiards two years earlier). And so came that other defining moment. "Lydiard was the first person I believe, that said, 'You could be great'. And I think in New Zealand in those days and probably still today, the tendency is for people to say, 'You're not going to be any good'." They can't say that about Peter, who did become great. But first came hard graft with the Lydiard pack.
He was working full-time as a quantity surveyor when he began training with top New Zealand long-distance runners, Murray Halberg, Bill Baillie and Barry Magee. When he did speed work, the middle-distance man worked out with sprinters. Under the sometimes-terse tutelage of Arthur Lydiard, the newcomer slowly built up his endurance.
"It was a while before I attempted the fearsome 22-miler on Sunday, that was a bit of a shock. I was sort of nursed into it fairly gradually and I did some significant mileage but I wasn't doing 100 [miles] a week," Peter says.
The day he attempted the big Waiatarua run through the Waitākere Ranges, Peter struggled, especially at the end. "Stupid, blind determination forced me on, reeling along the streets until, somehow, I made the Halberg home. The rest were all inside, dressed in track suits. I tottered in, collapsed on a sofa and burst into tears. It was most humiliating, but I just couldn't stop myself," he says in No Bugles No Drums.
While Peter sometimes found sections of the Waiatarua difficult, after conquering it that first time he never feared the course and improved his times dramatically. That also happened on the track and finally, he qualified for the Rome Olympics, where he won his first gold medal.
Next came the world records, the first a team effort in Ireland. At Santry Stadium, Dublin, in 1961, Peter anchored a 4x1-mile relay team with Gary Philpott, Halberg and Magee.
In 1962, the individual times began falling to Peter. He set world records for the 800 metres and 880 yards in the same race at Christchurch and the mile at Cooks Garden, Whanganui. He also bettered the world indoor records for 880 yards at Tokyo and 1000 yards in Los Angeles.
At the Commonwealth Games in Perth that same year, Peter won both the 880 yards and the mile, then scored the metric equivalent two years later at the Tokyo Olympics. But before his double glory, came a period of unrest. In 1963, the falling records led to fallout.
The clash was between coach and pupil over an interview Peter gave to Sports Illustrated. "I sort of said, 'Well, you know I listen to Arthur, but basically I do what I want to do'. So that was that." The reasons for his remarks go deeper. "Arthur had a penchant for wanting to predict what I would do and I didn't like that because, invariably, I would do what he said I was going to do and (people would say) 'What a genius'," Peter says, talking as if the bust-up was yesterday.
Looking back, Peter admits he felt that Arthur's correct forecasts took the kudos off his performances. "I thought, 'If he'd just kept his mouth shut, this would have been a nice unexpected treat, but he went and blabbed his mouth and said I was going to do it. This added pressure of public expectation for me, it was not what I wanted and I was not clear as to Arthur's motives."
Peter resented his running pal, Murray Halberg, for taking Arthur's side, but the athletes are still friends - as are coach and former pupil. At the time of the clash, Arthur and Peter were both working for tobacco company Rothmans and were asked by their boss to patch things up. So they did. "My position on Arthur is, if it wasn't for him giving me the inspiration and sound training, I wouldn't have done it and nothing else matters, period, right there. If he had not said, 'Peter you're going to be a great athlete', I wouldn't have even bothered probably. So regardless of what else happened he is the person to whom I owe my athletic success."
Peter retired from competitive athletics in 1965, still on top of the world.
Snell, P., Gilmour, G. (1965). No Bugles No Drums. Auckland: Minerva.