Athletics: Track gold bonds still strong after 50 years

Peter Snell and Murray Halberg in their New Zealand team blazers.
Peter Snell and Murray Halberg in their New Zealand team blazers.
Today marks 50 years since Peter Snell and Murray Halberg won gold medals on the track at the Rome Olympics. Cathy Walshe, of NZPA, talks to the men who produced the greatest hour in New Zealand sport.

Living thousands of kilometres apart, and 50 years on from an historic hour at the 1960 Olympics, Peter Snell and Murray Halberg both exhibit faint bemusement mixed with a sharp recall of their track running gold medal-winning heroics.

The memory of that golden day in Rome still burns clear, as first Snell - a barrel-chested 21-year-old virtual unknown - powered to a shock 1min 46.3sec win over 800m.

It happened half-an-hour before Halberg, whippet-thin and wiry, ran himself to a standstill in taking the 5000m in 13min 43.4sec.

Two medal ceremonies, two black track-suited figures atop the victory dais, watching as the New Zealand flag flew high to the strains of God Save the Queen.

It was the first time New Zealand had won two Olympic golds on the same day, let alone in the same arena.

Today, the pair will take time to recall that special day a half century earlier: Snell (71) from his home in Dallas, Texas, and Halberg (77) from Waiheke Island, near Auckland.

There are remarkable similarities in how they remember the day, with its dream-like quality and sheer thrill of achievement still very much to the fore.

Both approached their races with complete confidence, the conditioning and pre-race tactics of coach Arthur Lydiard giving them a huge boost in self-belief.

Snell, with a modest world ranking of 25th, could easily have been overwhelmed at the history and grandeur of the Olympics in an ancient Italian city.

Instead, his focus was complete.

He bypassed the opening ceremony without a second thought - his heats starting the next day - "I didn't think it would be too good for my chances standing out in the sun the day before", and his tactics for the final were clear.

"My pre-race plan was to make a race-winning move along the back stretch of the last lap, but unfortunately the pace was too fast," he remembers.

"I think I wrote off my chances right there, as I sort of stayed in on the pole line, unable to go round the field."

But, as the five contenders came out of the last bend, a demanding schedule started to take hold.

As the others faded, Snell powered on, upgrading his expectations to fourth, to bronze, to silver, then an unbelievable gold.

"With about 20 yards to go I drew level with Roger Moens, and saw an unbroken tape just ahead of me. I wasn't too sure where he was, because he was running wide, two lanes away from me.

"I flung myself at the tape and that was it.

"So, my recollections as a competitor of actually pulling that off, was sort of thrilling and dream-like - 'golly, this is happening to me'. I was a bit of an unknown, and now I was a gold medallist."

Snell also had a superb position in which to view Halberg's race.

Kept on the side of the track, awaiting his medal ceremony, an elated Snell treated his vanquished rivals to an insider's description of the race.

"I had a beautiful close up view of Murray's race and I knew what his strategy was going to be, so I sort of boasted about it to the other two medallists, George Kerr and Roger Moens."

Halberg arrived at the Olympics near the peak of his powers, a solid base of international experience adding to his confidence, and with a precise knowledge of what he needed to do.

"Earlier in my career, my focus was so intense and I was such a determined young athlete, it was in retrospect a lot of my undoing, why I never performed too well at my first Commonwealth Games and Olympics," he said.

"But, by the time I got to Rome, I was terribly mindful of the fact that you must be aware of everything that's going on. Your concentration is certainly there, but you must be mindful of everything that's going on around you. It's an inner resolve."

That awareness meant Halberg knew Snell had won, even if he did not see the race, as he was warming up on an adjacent track.

As for the race, Lydiard's strategy mirrored Halberg's winning tactics over three miles at the 1958 Cardiff Empire Games.

Three laps from home, he let fly and did not ease up until he fell over the finish line, clutching the tape and spent beyond belief.

His rivals thought he had miscounted the laps, and realised too late he had not.

"I had so much confidence and faith in Arthur's training methods and his race plans, that I knew exactly what I had to do," Halberg said.

After that extraordinary day, both comment on the connection it sealed.

Halberg: "It's been interesting, people have always thought of that day within terms of Peter and myself on that same Rome track, on the same day, within the same hour, performing. It makes for quite an incredible bond between us."

And Snell: "Ever since, I've felt very close to Murray as a result of what we did together that afternoon."

Back to the present, both seem surprised at finding themselves in their 70s.

Snell has been sabotaged by his previously phenomenal heart, so plans to return to New Zealand to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the double gold had to be shelved.

Just over a year ago, he was diagnosed with a heart condition which forced him to curtail intensive exercise.

Helped by an implanted defibrillator and heart drugs, he still exercises, though less than previously.

Halberg, who plans a quiet family evening on the race anniversary, rates the establishment of the Halberg Trust as the major bonus of his golden exploits.


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