How good was the peerless Peter Snell, who broke two world records on a Christchurch track 50 years and one day ago?
The Lancaster Park crowd was on its feet as the 1960 Olympic champion shattered the world 800m and 880 yards records on February 3, 1962. His 1min 44.3sec 800m time remains the fastest over the distance on a grass track and endures as the New Zealand record.
Not even the great John Walker or current hero Nick Willis have been able to beat it since on synthetic tracks.
You begin to gauge the greatness of New Zealand's middle-distance marvel of the 20th century (Snell) when his 21st century successor (Willis) admits he has all but given up on his dream of Snell's benchmark.
The Beijing Olympic Games 1500m silver medallist paid the ultimate tribute at a Christchurch Casino luncheon yesterday to mark the 50th jubilee of Snell's world half-mile (880 yards) and 800m records at Lancaster Park on February 3, 1962.
"I always hoped I would be the one to finally get the record off the books but I think I'm starting to wave the white flag already," Willis admitted.
"He went through the first lap faster than I've ever run the 400m itself. You have to have a phenomenal amount of leg speed. I'm just not quite sure I have the speed."
But the amazing thing about what Peter Snell was doing was that he was chucking in 22-milers in the Waitakere Ranges, running 100-mile weeks, as a person who had that natural leg speed.
"I think I might have to move up to the [5000m] just because his time daunts me."
Willis gave it a crack last year when he felt in great shape but "only managed 1:46.8, a full 2 1/2 seconds off what Snell ran that shows how incredible that performance was, 50 years ago".
Canterbury's Shaun Farrell – once dubbed "The Red Rocket" by former Press athletics writer Rod Dew – was New Zealand's third-fastest 800m runner, behind Snell and Walker and just a tick faster than Willis.
He also expressed his awe at the 1960s superstar's feats.
"What Peter Snell ran on grass all those years ago is definitely worth way more than 1.44:43. I believe if I hadn't got injured, I think I could have run 1:44 but I think Snell's run was worth 1:43-something, probably quicker."
Olympic Games 1960 marathon bronze medallist Barry Magee laid down the gauntlet by saying if people wanted to surpass Snell they'd have to train like he did in his pomp.
Magee and Snell were both "Arthur's boys", part of the six-strong stable of Olympians trained by the incomparable Arthur Lydiard in the late 50s and 60s.
"[Snell] probably ran more miles with me than any other person in the world," Magee said.
From 1961 to 1964, Snell ran "100 miles a week with me" for two eight-week blocks each year. In 1964 when he won the 800m and 1500m double at the Tokyo Olympics, Snell ran 160km (100 miles) a week for 10 weeks in a row, Magee said.
Seven weeks before he broke three world records in eight days – the mile record at Cook's Gardens in Whanganui preceded his Christchurch feats – Snell ran a marathon in 2hr 41min.
"So, middle distance runners of the world, if you want to run 1:44 or better, you've got to do better, stronger and longer than Snell."
It's heartening that in this hi-tech age where professional athletes are glorified, there is still room to celebrate the deeds of someone like Snell, who caught the eye of the world half a century ago.
The great and the good of New Zealand athletics were present yesterday to pay homage.
The voice of New Zealand running, erudite emeritus English professor Roger Robinson, welcomed a panel featuring Willis, Farrell, Magee, Olympic 5000m representative Adrian Blincoe, Commonwealth Games middle-distance medallist Nikki Hamblin and Bruce Tulloh, the world-renowned athletics coach and former European champion who ran his first sub-four minute when Snell set his world record at Wanganui in 1962.
In the audience were 1968 Mexico Olympics marathon bronze medallist Mike Ryan and a clutch of Commonwealth Games medallists – a star cast led by 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games gold medallist Dick Tayler and great Canterbury field athlete Val Young, who blazed a trail for people like Beatrice Faumuina and Valerie Adams.
Dave McKenzie, the nuggety West Coaster who won the 1967 Boston Marathon, came over the hill to be reunited with Robinson's wife, Katherine Switzer, who hogged the headlines in that same Boston race by becoming the first woman to officially enter and complete the race despite an unenlightened official trying to forcibly remove her.
It was a Who's Who of New Zealand track and field, with only one face missing – Snell's.
The great man couldn't be in Christchurch in body but he was in spirit – thanks to a video recorded at his home in Dallas, Texas.
Snell once described his Christchurch race as "the best record I ever set" because it had stood so long.
But yesterday he expressed his hope that Willis, or someone else, would break the record.
Snell said he hoped today's International Track and Field meet at Christ's College might revive the sport in Christchurch after the calamity caused at QEII Stadium by the February 22 earthquake. The self-effacing Snell pointed out people in Dallas had raised money for the Christchurch Earthquake Trust – but it took Robinson to tell the spellbound crowd it was Snell who organised and oversaw that appeal.
That's why Peter Snell is such a great New Zealander. He's left a legacy, which Willis is gladly following.
The Beijing Olympian was hailed yesterday as the virtual "patron" of the ITM meet, such has been his unflagging support for the event since its inception.
One last Snell story: Christchurch athlete Jim McDonald competed in 1962 and was so confident he would break 1min 50sec, he handed his wife a stopwatch and asked her to time him. Robinson recalled that McDonald reckoned he ran the race of his life, maybe 1:48, but when he turned to his wife for confirmation, all she could shout was: "Snell ran 1:44!"
- © Fairfax NZ News
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