Fifty years ago today, New Zealand enjoyed perhaps its greatest day ever at an Olympic Games. First Peter Snell won gold in the 800 m, and then within half an hour Murray Halberg won the 5000 m to complete a remarkable track double in Rome’s Olympic Stadium.
Snell had arrived in Rome as a relatively little-known middle-distance runner. The 21-year-old had raced outside New Zealand only once before, and his best time over 800 m ranked him just 26th in the world. But the young Kiwi was helped by the calming presence of his experienced teammate, Halberg, and the careful preparation of his coach, Arthur Lydiard. Snell cruised through the three qualifying rounds with a series of impressive times, but was still not favoured for a medal.
The final was run at a red-hot pace. The favourite, world record-holder Roger Moens of Belgium, took the lead 100 m from the finish and looked to be heading for victory. But Snell surged past him on the inside, crossing the line with his eyes shut. When he discovered that he had won gold, the New Zealander was so stunned that he did not even take a victory lap.
Just minutes later, Murray Halberg lined up in the 5000 m. The popular New Zealander had been a world-class miler in the mid-1950s but finished a disappointing 11th in the 1500-m final at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. He recovered his confidence to win gold in the 3-mile event at the 1958 Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, and easily qualified for the 5000-m final in Rome two years later.
Drawing inspiration from Snell’s triumph, Halberg completed a golden day for New Zealand by winning in 13 minutes 43.4 seconds. Running to a plan set by Lydiard, he burst ahead of the field with three laps to go and hung on bravely to the finish. A couple of strides after reaching the tape, he collapsed on the infield, completely spent. Australian distance champion Ron Clarke described it as ‘probably the most courageous run in Olympic history’.
Amid the excitement, New Zealander Valerie Sloper narrowly missed out on a medal in the women’s shot put, which was going on at the same time.
At the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, the peerless Snell completed his own personal double on the track, winning both the 800 and 1500 m.
New Zealand has had other great days at the Olympics – our competitors have won two golds on the same day on four other occasions (21 October 1964 in Tokyo, 10 & 11 August 1984 in Los Angeles, and 16 August 2008 in Beijing) – but never in such glamorous, high-profile events as on that golden day in Rome.
Image: Peter Snell at the 1960 Olympics (olympic.org)