In the stretch of the Olympic 800-meter finals in Rome last year the highly favored Belgian, Roger Moens, looked quickly to his right to see if there was any opposition in sight as he headed for the finish line. In that brief instant a stocky bull of a runner, New Zealand's Peter Snell, audaciously burst by on Moens' left side and won a gold medal by a step. "He'll never get anywhere with his build," said the irritated Moens of the winner. "He is too heavy."
Two weeks ago the still little-known and still burly Peter Snell caught the whole track world looking the wrong way. In the improbable sounding locale of Wanganui, New Zealand, without advance fuss or fanfare, he ran a mile in 3:54.4, breaking Herb Elliott's 3�-year-old record by a tenth of a second.
That ended Snell's anonymity. By last Saturday, as he was ready to climax the finest fortnight a track man ever had, no one was going to be surprised by Snell no matter what he did—or weighed. He had announced he was out to break the world half-mile mark, and as 15,000 confident New Zealanders shouted him on around the firm grass track at Lancaster Park, Christchurch, that is exactly what he did. He managed it casually, effortlessly and powerfully, also setting a world record for the slightly shorter 800-meter distance en route. That made it three world records in eight days. Suddenly at 23, self-possessed, shy and likable Peter Snell, who has the legs of a shotputter, hips so small he must have his shorts specially tailored to keep them up, a penchant for eating honey by the 60-pound tin and a nonstop attitude toward life, was literally changing the shape of foot racing's future.
At 5 feet 10� and 171 pounds, Snell is neither built like nor competes like any famous miler of modern times. He is 20 pounds heavier than any of the others and shorter than most. He has huge and efficient leg muscles—look at them and you think of Joe Louis or Parry O'Brien—and to see him run is to get an impression of rippling motion and surging strength, rather than flowing speed. He has a limited amount of running savvy and a minimum of finesse. He simply comes on toward the end of a race to brutally overpower that combination of time and distance that is the measure of world records. To make an automotive analogy, the usual runner is like a Jaguar. Snell is a Sherman tank—with overdrive.
After a race, instead of collapsing in the traditional heap of the athlete who has given his last ounce of energy and will, Snell is hardly panting. Following his mile record in Wanganui the announcer who interviewed him was considerably more winded from the excitement than Snell was from the running. He seems to have incalculable reserves of power and stamina and enjoys developing them. Thus, the day after his record mile, Snell flew to Auckland, was driven to nearby Papakura, where he changed into track shorts and ran the last 15 miles to his parents' home in Pukekohe to tell them about his race. It is this combination of strength, youth and zeal that now leads track experts to predict that Snell may eventually break every record from 800 to 5,000 meters.
Snell's perpetual-motion attitude showed itself while he was a schoolboy and well before he took up serious running. The son of an engineer, he was raised in Opunake, a small and beautiful beach town some 30 miles southwest of New Plymouth. When he was a small boy his mother took note of his constant activity and catered to it in one striking respect. He liked honey, and she bought it 60 pounds at a time to feed to her energetic son. That was, and still is, the only dietary fad he has. Later he attended Mount Albert Grammar School (the counterpart of a U.S. high school) in Auckland, where the headmaster recalls a day in 1957 when Snell won a singles and doubles match for the school tennis team and then played a starring role in a cricket game. When the cricket was over the headmaster found Peter running around the school track in his shorts and T shirt. "What are you doing, Snell?" he asked. "I want to keep fit, sir," answered Snell. Presumably still in the name of fitness, he became a good swimmer, an excellent boxer and a member of the school Rugby team. His tennis is so good that while in London last summer he took time off from his running to play a few sets at Wimbledon with Mark Otway, a New Zealand Davis Cup player.
Snell left school in 1957 and began training as a supply surveyor, a job that calls for estimating the amount of materials needed for building projects. At the same time, with a typical burst of energy, he helped his family build a new home in Pukekohe. Every Friday night he would take a bus from Auckland to the town of Runciman. There he would change his clothes at the bus depot, run the 10 miles to Pukekohe, work Saturday and Sunday, run back to Runciman and ride into Auckland for another week at his job. The bus, of course, could have taken him to Pukekohe.
Snell kept up his competitive running, too, but his performances were promising rather than outstanding. Then, in 1958, after winning a half-mile event in Auckland, he met New Zealand's famous track coach, Arthur Lydiard. A former marathon runner and now a coach by avocation (he has made his living by managing a women's shoe factory and delivering milk), Lydiard is the New Zealand counterpart of Australia's fierce and demanding Percy Cerutty, Herb Elliott's coach. At 44, Lydiard is more successful than Cerutty, with five world records being held by his pupils. New Zealanders rather stuffily point out, however, that Lydiard doesn't talk as much about his achievements as Cerutty.
Lydiard applies to all racing the first principle of his first love, marathon running: endurance and strength will win. His training schedules call for 100 miles of cross-country work a week, a regimen few athletes have the energy or inclination to accept. (The program is somewhat helped by New Zealand's generally mild climate, which permits outdoor work all year round.) In Snell, the hyperactive housebuilder, Lydiard found an ideal pupil. By mid-1960, Snell was able to break the New Zealand record for the half mile. Then he qualified for the New Zealand Olympic team, along with such fellow Lydiard pupils as Murray Halberg and Barry Magee. Snell was the least regarded of the three, but he reached the peak of his training in the early heats in Rome, exactly as Lydiard had planned. Before the team left New Zealand, Lydiard, a man locally famous for amazingly accurate predictions, said Snell would be the finest runner the island ever produced. Everybody assumed he was bragging and laughed at this. Then Snell beat Moens. "I told you so," said Lydiard.
Still, nobody was thinking of Snell as a champion miler. Nobody, that is, but Lydiard. Soon he had Snell back at slogging 20 miles a day around the rugged Waitakere mountains near Auckland. Snell's frequent companion was marathon man Magee, who would set a fierce pace. Snell would keep up, the idea being that he could build enough stamina running 20 hard miles a clip eventually to be able to run a single mile at a very fast pace without distress. "When it's pouring with rain, and you're bowling along, wet-through, in the dark," Snell once said of this training, "there's a satisfaction just in knowing you're out there and the others aren't."