Peter Snell of New Zealand (© Getty Images)
The late Peter Snell, New Zealand’s three-time Olympic middle-distance champion, set six ratified world records. Yet unbeknown until late last year, Snell had always been missing the plaques commemorating two of those world records run in 1964.
On the evening of 19 November 2019, Snell and his wife Miki began their long journey from Dallas, Texas to Monaco, determined to attend the World Athletics Heritage Mile Night set to take place three days later.
The remarkable tenacity and fortitude which made Snell such a formidable athlete and later a respected academic, was reflected in his decision to even leave home that evening. Snell, aged 80, had a long- term heart condition and had been hospitalised the week before following a heart attack.
Feeling weak and breathless at the airport, he understandably cancelled his trip. Tragically, on 12 December, at their home in Dallas, Snell passed away.
With typical selflessness, which summed up his great character, Snell’s first thought after cancelling his trip was to send this author a private message of apology from the airport. Then from his sick bed, write the following message which was read out at the Heritage Mile Night.
“I am deeply disappointed in not being able to join you tonight. I even tried to go against my heart failure doctor’s advice and showed up at the airport for my flight to Monaco. I felt that it was too risky to board the eight- hour flight, given how poorly I was feeling at that time. I wish my mile record colleagues all the best and hope you have a wonderful evening. Thanks to Seb Coe and World Athletics for making it happen.” - Peter Snell.
Had Snell made the trip he would have met up again with a legion of mile and 1500m running greats. These included fellow men’s mile world record breakers Michel Jazy, Jim Ryun, Filbert Bayi, John Walker, Seb Coe, Steve Cram, Noureddine Morceli and Hicham El Guerrouj.
What Snell was not aware of was that World Athletics and Athletics New Zealand had planned a very special presentation as part of the Mile Night show.
Strangely, in one of those curiosities of history, which neither federation can explain, while all of Snell’s world records had been officially ratified, he had never been sent the commemorative plaques for two of them.
The world records in question were both set in Western Springs, Auckland: 1000m of 2:16.6 on 12 November 1964 and mile of 3:54.1 on 17 November 1964.
If ever there was a task that Heritage, the newest World Athletics department, was designed to tackle, it was to remedy such a remarkable historic anomaly.
After a deep search of the World Athletics archive buildings, fortunately two blank original world record plaques from the 1960s were unearthed along with their presentation boxes. The plaques are adorned with the old IAAF name and logo, which features the classical image of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. The plaques were then engraved with Snell’s missing records.
With Coe set to make a surprise presentation of plaques to Snell on stage, everything was ready to honour one of the all-time greats of athletics on 22 November 2019. However, tragedy intervened.
The question since Snell’s passing has been what to do with the plaques, which were subsequently handed over to Athletics New Zealand for safe keeping.
His wife Miki has recently agreed that Athletics New Zealand should retain the plaques for the foreseeable future. The current plan is to display them with other important national athletics memorabilia at the National Training Centre at AUT Millennium in Auckland. The World Athletics Heritage Plaque, which was awarded to Arthur Lydiard, Snell’s legendary coach, is already displayed at the centre.
After 56 years, the tale of two world record plaques looks at last to be approaching its end.
Chris Turner for World Athletics Heritage