Peter George Snell, that very quick man from New Zealand, is of a mixed mind when it comes to indoor track meets. He likes the circusy hubbub of it all and the mixing and milling of athletes, and he says that here he is in his element. But he reckons, too, that indoor records do not excite the mind a great deal, and he finds, moreover, that running races on the banked wooden track exerts stresses and strains on his legs and feet that he is neither accustomed to nor happy about. "As a long strider," he says, "you have all that bother of holding yourself tight in the turns and pushing with this leg and favoring that one, and I'm not keen on it at all. For me, one mile on the boards amounts to one and a half miles out of doors."
Notwithstanding this nettlesome ambivalence, a certain singleness of purpose seemed to have taken hold of Peter Snell one day last week when he knocked off early from work, boarded a plane at Auckland's Whenuapai Airport and, despite the peripheral effects of a cyclone in the Fiji Islands, set out for California, 19 hours to the east. His destination was Los Angeles where, in 1962, he had begun his indoor career by running 1,000 yards in two minutes and six seconds, a world record. And now, having competed only three other times indoors, Snell was coming back to retire. He said he supposed his aim in his last indoor appearance was to set a new world record for the 1,000 yards—"to give New Zealand something to hold on to for a while." Among those hoping very earnestly to upset that pretty little send-off was Canada's Bill Crothers. He had finished seven yards behind Snell in the 1962 race—and about four yards behind him in the 800 meters at the Tokyo Olympics.
Because Snell had accepted the Los Angeles Times' invitation to its games—and not a single other U.S. indoor meet—his arrival in Los Angeles late Thursday afternoon amounted to something special. Snell, of course, had won two gold medals in Tokyo and had set an up-to-date record for the mile in November—3:54.1. His name on the list of contenders in Los Angeles certainly had had a lot to do with the fact that the Sports Arena had sold out the preceding Tuesday. Accordingly, the meet director himself, Glenn Davis, showed up at the airport to meet the celebrity.
Davis, old sidekick to Doc Blanchard at Army, old beau to Liz Taylor and old friend to Peter Snell, was looking weary, and he combed his hair as Snell's jet taxied up to Gate 29. Presently, looking bashful and carrying in a plastic bag a dejected white and violet flower lei which he had acquired in Honolulu, Snell came smiling into view. He was wearing black, pointy shoes, light-gray trousers, a white nylon shirt with cloisonné cuff links which Sally, his wife, had bought for him in Tokyo for Christmas, and a black wool blazer with silver buttons and "New Zealand/Tokyo 1964/Athletics" embroidered on the left-hand breast pocket. Around him, ever so faintly, hovered the delicate essence of winter-green.
February 22, 1965
Snell and Sally, on a honeymoon-and-racing trip to California in 1963, had spent two weeks with the Glenn Davises, and Mr. Outside moved right up to Peter and shook hands. Then, a little diffidently, Miss Jean Greig came forward to shake hands, too. Snell did not know Miss Greig, nor she him, but she is the acting New Zealand consul in Los Angeles, and somehow, well, it seemed the thing to do. "Wellington let me know to expect him weeks ago, but then I heard nothing more," said Jean Greig. "When I picked up the papers the other day and saw an advertisement for the track meet, I suddenly realized Peter must be almost here."
Miss Greig, answering a question, said Wellington was not a friend in sporting circles back home, but rather the capital of her country, and added that her function, she imagined, would "be to take care of Peter should he break his leg, heaven forbid." Snell, forcing a laugh of sorts, filled his lungs and said that what his legs really felt like doing was running. "Arriving in the U.S.—in California—is very refreshing," he said. "What time is it by your time?" asked Davis. "It's just past lunch tomorrow," replied Snell, larking.
A press conference had been scheduled for just before dinner Thursday at Snell's hotel, the Sheraton-West, which gives the meet's competitors a special rate. When Snell walked in for the conference, a photographer obliged him first to pose, in a gesture of Commonwealth solidarity, passing a plate of crusty sandwiches to Frances Slaap, a London high jumper, and Anita Webb, a Birmingham half-miler. That much accomplished, Snell sat down and the man from the Times said, "Peter, is it true you are really going to retire this year?" Snell, who is 26, said, "Definitely. I'll take one last fling through the U.S. and Europe this summer—maybe even go to Russia, I should like to hope—but that's to be it."
"Will you ever run the 3:50 mile?" asked the man from the Herald-Examiner. "I thought so once," said Snell, "but now I don't know. It would be very tough."
"Why do you wish to retire?" asked the Christian Science Monitor. "To achieve results, you've got to spend so much time. If I had been beaten in the Olympics, perhaps...but I've quite a few records already. The Australians say, yeah, but you don't have the 1,500-meter record—Herb Elliott's got that. Maybe I can change that too. But, Sally, my wife, well, developing a family is among our plans; not children just yet, perhaps, but that too. It all figures in my decision to withdraw."
"Was winning two gold medals in Tokyo your greatest thrill in racing?" "It was the greatest achievement for me. Winning one, my first, at 800 meters in Rome, was my greatest thrill."
"Peter, when did you first realize you had the mark of greatness on you, that you were different from the other kids, and how did you differ from them, would you say?" "I would say you ought to buy my book. I'm working on it now with a writer and it will be out later this year, I hope. It will be my thoughts and experiences, intended for the popular market." "Won't a book like that, capitalizing on your athletic career, ruin your amateur standing?" "That's what I'm counting on," said Peter Snell, and Miss Greig, exhaling a cloud of smoke from her Rothmans cigarette (Snell works for Rothmans in Auckland), laughed along with the rest of the crowd.
Snell was then lured outside for a television interview on the sidewalk. "Who's this guy, a movie star?" asked Freddie Perez, a 10-year-old boy scout who had come chattering down Wilshire Boulevard at that point on his skateboard. When, a few moments later, Snell had given the scout his autograph, Freddie picked up his skateboard and walked on air.
The urge to run was still with Snell, and he went to his room and began to unpack. His warmup shoes were wrapped in Wednesday's women's page from the New Zealand Herald and his toothpaste and electric razor were in a pink plastic pouch with blue forget-me-nots. "I pinched it from our bathroom without asking while Sally was off clerking in a bank. She quit before when I was training for the Olympics, but I have more time now to help with the housework, and she has taken her old job to pay for the Tokyo trip," said Peter.
Once before, on his honeymoon trip to Los Angeles, Snell absently packed two warmup shoes, both for the right foot. Nothing daunted, he proceeded in track suit and barefoot from his hotel to Bullock's Wilshire, a fairly fashionable department store just up the way, and was fitted for tennis shoes. Snell has been married two years now. This trip the shoes belonged one to the other, and he donned them and several layers of shorts and T shirts and sweaters and blousing trousers—an outfit which can be peeled away as one's exertions increase. Then he went into the park across the street from his hotel and, while Glenn Davis stood in the dark and cold, waiting to go for a steak, Snell ran the perimeter for 30 minutes, giving added zest to his last lap by hurdling all the trash cans. Snell's $6.50 filet mignon, which was his reward, was fine, but the cup of tea he had with his chocolate sundae came with a tinfoil bag. Annoyed by the very idea of it, Snell pried the miserable thing apart and wound up with a cupful of liquid leaves.
First thing Friday morning Snell had a breakfast of pancakes. "I'm doing this not because it's a good training breakfast but because it will make Sally furiously jealous," he said. "She will very nearly give her life for pancakes. One thing New Zealanders don't have—two things—are maple syrup and chocolate sauce. I mean, we have them but they're not fit for much."
Afterward, he began to discharge diligently a number of chores of curious variety—especially the first, the matter of the sea lions. "The mayor of Napier wants a couple and asked me to see what can be done," Snell explained. Napier, it develops, is a town of about 20,000 which has no sea lions and wants two semi-civilized ones for its new aquatic pool. And the mayor of Napier turns out to be a director of Rothmans tobacco. (Snell is employed in its advertising and publicity department.) Snell began by calling Marineland, a watery peep show not far from Los Angeles, and Marineland said the man you want is Richard Headley, in Santa Barbara. Mr. Headley catches and trains sea lions, and though he was out when Peter called ("Hello, my name's Snell, and I'm anxious to locate two semi-trained sea lions for the Napier Aquatic Pool"), his secretary said that sea lions willing to eat out of a man's hand fetch $110, exclusive of shipping, but why didn't he write a letter from New Zealand and Mr. Headley certainly would....
"Sounds reasonable to me, $110," said Snell, hanging up, and moved on from affairs of state to affairs of his own future. To that end he admitted to his room, for a private conference, a man who has some plans and schemes for his post-amateur future. "Endorsements and the like," said Snell, getting back into his track clothes, "but nothing yet very definite. I wonder if I've any commercial value?" And with that to perplex him, he crossed over again into Lafayette Park and, in the noonday sun, began to jog around it, past whitewashed Lafayette himself, past the woman grooming her German shepherd with a hairbrush, past the crossword puzzlers, the sleepers, loafers and basketball players, none of them paying the world-renowned Peter Snell the slightest mind. When he had run what he fancied was four miles, he sat on the grass, stretched out his awesome freckled legs, and talked some more about his future.
"When I retire I know it will disappoint a lot of people, and if I try to capitalize on my fame it will make them ashamed of me. They think of me, you see, as this sort of clean-cut New Zealander who has no vices and can do no wrong. That's what really gets Sally annoyed. 'Oh, I could tell them a thing or two,' she will say. And now, in March, they're giving me the O.B.E. [Snell is already a Member of the Order of the British Empire, and the O.B.E., making him an Officer in the hierarchical scheme of things, merely represents a small step up.] They asked me, as a matter of form, I suppose, if I'd accept the honor, and I said, 'No, thank you.' And then they said, 'Nobody turns down these things. You're obliged to accept them,' so I agreed to, if that's the way it is. Running, after all, has given us self-confidence and a position of standing in our community. We used to be timid in school." (Snell often uses "we" and "us" when he means only himself. "That's because I was always taught that saying I and me all the time was impolite and forward.")
As he kept talking, Snell was working himself into a proper mood of dismay: there were codling-moths in his apple trees because he did not have time to spray them before leaving for the Olympics, the used-car prices in New Zealand were outrageous, the income taxes too high and the career opportunities for a young athlete like himself too bleak. But slowly he brightened. "This trip," he said, "will give me more contacts. I'll get a page in my book from it, I'll get some speeches from it. And the New Zealand Broadcasting Corp. has asked me to file a story on the meet. Maybe I'll wind up as a commentator."
Back at the hotel that evening, Snell ran into Bill Crothers and his coach, Fred Foot, and they went out for tea. Crothers had lost a race in New York the night before, possibly because of a virus infection, and at one point sneezed in Snell's direction. "That's the ticket," said Foot. "A few more like that. Bill, and we've got him." Said Snell after the others had left: "Virus or no virus, the only way I can thrash that bloke is to get in front of him and go flat out."
Still, on Saturday, the day of the meet, Snell was as busy as ever with his odds and ends. After another breakfast of pancakes, he buttonholed the Russian Olympic coach, Gabriel Korobkov. It was Snell's intention to get himself invited to a Russian meet this summer, but after his talk with Korobkov he found himself in an unusual position. "He called the tune himself." said Snell, in some wonder. Ordinarily, when Snell offers to enter a race, the promoters fall over themselves trying to be accommodating, trying, indeed, to work things out to Snell's convenience. Korobkov, by contrast, said simply that if Snell could come to Minsk on July 5 fine; if not, that was O.K., too. "I told him I was racing in London on the third, and couldn't I come later in July, and he said impossible, he had to prepare for the Americans, and then, of all things, he asked me if I thought Ron Clarke could make it on the fifth. He even wants me to give Clarkey his address." Snell stared in amazement at the piece of paper the Russian had given him. He was laughing, but Clarke, the Australian long-distance runner, was not exactly the man Snell had been meaning to promote.
Back in his warmup suit again, he went over to the Sports Arena, where workmen were still assembling the wooden track. Dodging around them, he ran fast and slow laps, then complained about the difficulties of making the turns—"If I didn't watch I'd fly right over the edge." Snell, whose mercurial, darting thoughts remind one of Cassius Clay, then got down on all fours and peered under the track. "I'm studying the underpinnings," he said. "We don't have an indoor track in all of New Zealand, and, maybe, when somebody gets interested in building an arena, I can give advice."
With that he looked up at the American flag in the rafters. "Do you know when they play The Star-Spangled Banner here a fan blows that flag. It gives 'em a laugh back in New Zealand to hear about that." He was told the same thing happens in Canada when God Save the Queen is played before hockey games; he should tell that around New Zealand, too. "Oh, I'd never repeat such a thing as that," said Snell, "even if it were true."
Immediately another inspiration hit him. He would like to have a film of the track meet, to show when he returned home. Within a few minutes he had arranged everything with NBC, which was setting up television cameras. Then he said he needed to go by the May Co. and pick up a set of stainless-steel mixing bowls for his former landlady in Auckland, Mrs. Warren. "Stainless steel is terribly dear at home," he said. When that was done, he had an idea that, while waiting for his own race, he might interview other athletes—"if only I can borrow a tape recorder from someone." He borrowed it, of course—from Hal Connolly, the world record holder in the hammer who lives in Los Angeles. And then, while drinking a final cup of tea at the hotel before leaving for the arena, he ran into a man he had been looking for all day—Hilmer Lodge, the former track coach at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif. Lodge had a recipe Snell wanted—for the surface of a running track. Lodge wrote it down, and it calls for ‚Öì rubber buffings, ‚Öì plaster sand and ‚Öì 85/100 asphalt.
Snell, well pleased with his luck, tucked the list of ingredients into his billfold. Then he held up a program for the upcoming meet. The cover photograph showed Peter Snell setting a world record—and beating Bill Crothers—in the 1,000-yard race three years ago. "It would be funny," he said, "if the picture they take tonight has us in reverse order."
But the negative was negative
The picture did not develop that way. When he was introduced Snell got an ovation that lasted just under his old record time of 2:06, and the time he spent beating his old, respected antagonist on Saturday was just over it—2:07.9. But these few moments were the highlight of the evening, and indeed the whole circus ground to a halt to watch—a pole vaulter all but poised in midair; a high jumper languishing on her back in the landing pit, looking out; a shotputter standing with the 16-pound ball suspended like a clock pendulum from his long, sinewed arm. As Snell had predicted he would, he bolted to the front at the gun and thereafter the five-man field, with Crothers a reliable second, strung itself out and, like children at play, followed itself around the ellipse six and a quarter times. All the while Peter Snell seemed to be almost detached as he repeatedly cast his eyes back over his right shoulder and observed the proceedings. At the gun lap Crothers made his final challenge to put the flap-flapping New Zealander behind him. Snell just reached out a few inches more with his toes to preserve the status quo.
The race won, Snell went back to worrying about his interviews, his radio dispatches and the like, and Crothers sat down and told reporters he had run a stupid race. Which was not true at all. For Peter Snell had not done anything extra smart or crafty, nor had he really meant to. He just got in front of everybody else at the very beginning and proved again what everybody has known all along. He is the world's finest middle-distance runner. Not long after the race he was headed for home, 19 hours to the west.