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Original Issue


The once invincible Peter Snell, unable to recapture his Olympic skills, retires on a downbeat, but he goes home to New Zealand comforted and inspired by the plaudits he received even in defeat

Peter Snell has a book—his autobiography—coming out in November, and the chapter he has not finished yet is the next to last. The last chapter tells how nice it is going to be now that he can take his wife slooping around Mission Bay in the 12½-footer that Sally calls their yacht and dirty his knees in the flower garden of their suburban Auckland home and do a lot of serious nontraining and generally enjoy the life of a nonsmoking public relations man for a New Zealand tobacco company. The chapter he has not done yet is the one where he explains how it feels to go out in a final blaze of non-success.

From Toronto in early June to Berlin on July 17, Peter George Snell, at one time as invincible a runner as ever pulled on a singlet, an ominous opponent in his black underwear and with all those muscles, Peter Snell in less than two months lost nine straight races—nine more than anyone thought possible at the climax of his laudable career. Almost in a twinkling he had become a terribly vulnerable champion. At distances he had dominated, he lost to all sorts of people, runners like May and Simpson, Odlozil and the American teen-ager Ryun (see chart). Three times he lost to Jim Grelle. Toward the end of the tour it became less a question of how to beat Snell and more of who would beat him. Bill Crothers said it was very sad, that "other runners feel badly to see him like this.... He seems to have lost that little spark that made him great."

Where had he lost it? Why? At age 26, had he slipped so badly? Or had the opposition, en masse, suddenly caught up?

To begin with, any analysis must take into account that Snell was always an anomaly in the business of distance running. The Belgian Roger Moens, when beaten by Snell in the 1960 Olympics, said that Snell "will never get anywhere. He's too heavy." Moens was exercising his right to be a poor loser, but by the standards of the breed Snell is heavy: 175 pounds (he is just under 5 feet 11), with powerful shoulders, 16½-inchcalves. He does not have the ascetic look of the classic distance runner; he looks rather like an athletic Andy Griffith. Unlike most distance runners, he was first an all-round athlete, an outstanding left-handed tennis player, a boxer, a swimmer and a cricket and Rugby football player. As a runner he did not have the great finesse of Herb Elliott, the plodding dedication of Ron Clarke. He merely ran people to exhaustion, with long finishing kicks, and when he had completed the job he was usually less winded than the newsmen who flocked to listen to his quiet, painfully thought-out explanations. Once he set four world records in 15 days. He won the Olympic gold medal at 800 meters in Rome in 1960, branched out and won the 800 and 1,500 meters in Tokyo in 1964. Except for one trumped-up mile race in Dublin shortly after the Rome Olympics, he was never beaten outside his native New Zealand—until this fateful tour.

He was awesome to see when he ran, his great calves bulging, his arms punching the air, his head slightly rolling, his face impassive—a little unconcerned, it seemed. But he was not a man of abiding self-confidence. He said he always needed "somebody sympathetic to lean on." His wife Sally said he had to be "bolstered," and his coach of seven years, Arthur Lydiard, had to keep after him to train. He had rifts with Lydiard over this. Once, early in his running career, Snell said of the 20-mile practice runs he took: "When it's pouring with rain and you're bowling along, wet-through, in the dark, there's a satisfaction just in knowing you're out there and the others aren't." But he became increasingly envious of the others who weren't. In 1961 and again in 1963 there were great dips in his progress. Typical of his competitive passion, he always came back strong.

It was after Tokyo that he decided to make this last tour. He wanted to improve the 1,500-meter and mile records, and he wanted to see some of the world he had missed in his more serious travels. And, after all, would it not help his book to finish well?

But his training had gone badly. In March he complained, "I should be doing more now. But there is still time." In May, running on grass, he slipped and fell heavily on his left hip. Trying to come back too soon, he strained a muscle in his left calf. It was the first muscle trouble he could recall in two or three years. Unable to do much speed work, he missed that little bit of extra sharpness.

When he won over Grelle—barely—on June 4 in a 3:56.4 mile in Compton, he said he found it "very hard." He was nevertheless sure he would improve. In Vancouver, however, he had stomach distress and for weeks carried in his overnight case a little white bottle of Kaopectate. The tip-off that Snell was not the real Snell came at San Diego on June 27. At the head of the stretch he was three yards behind the 18-year-old Ryun. Three yards for Peter Snell? Nothing. He made his move—the most powerful, perhaps, in history. Then he hung there, as if held by a pin. He gained barely a yard and no more. It was a fast mile, to be sure, but Snell had never before lost a fast race.

He kept saying, believing, that he would get the necessary sharpness, if not at Helsinki ("my legs have no life," he said there), then at London or Dublin. And at Prague, where he lost his seventh straight, he said, "I will not quit until I regain my top form." In Berlin, when he finally realized he was not going to, he abruptly ended the tour.

In retrospect Snell realized that he had put a lot into his Tokyo preparation, more than he was willing to put into the tour, "perhaps, reasonably, because I was sort of wanting a rest. And I had more or less already proved myself the best.

"I know full well that if I wanted to go back home and rest a bit I could do something again next year. But I've made a decision to retire. It happens to have been very ill-timed. But that will not make me change my mind."

Snell says there is a New Zealander he knows who is over the hill and still running, "and it is kind of pitiful to see," but he does not think of himself as over the hill, and the trip was not so pitiful as it may have appeared. "I felt enriched in many ways—new friendships, the receptions I received. I was shown that, win or lose, I have earned a place in the feelings of fans all over the world."

Last week he appeared in Erfurt immediately after his 1,000-meter record was broken by Jürgen May. He was in street clothes when he went onto the track to congratulate the East German. When he appeared, Snell said, "there was pandemonium." He said this wonderingly, proudly, as if just realizing a great truth. No one, he said, had to introduce him.



Each new setback found Snell shielding his disappointment behind confident predictions.