LISTENER, 23 October 1976
When Peter Snell went to America to study in 1974, he left his medals in New Zealand. Those things that they hang around your neck at Olympic Games can turn into albatrosses. At the University of California, from where he hopes to graduate next year with a degree in physiology, Snell was, at age 35, just an anonymous student.
After he retired from competitive running in the mid-sixties, the Establishment opened doors for him. He became director of the Rothmans Sports Foundation in New Zealand – now that sounds good. But Snell is honest. He has that loneliness-of-the-middle-distance-runner; sorts things out in his own way, decides what is worth trying for and what isn’t, chooses his own goals.
‘The job I was doing, anyone could do. The one thing I had that others didn’t was an athletic reputation, and it boiled down to relying on that.’ So, he didn’t fool himself? ‘Well, I did for a while.’
Now he wants to be special, by his own lights, beyond the old-boy network. It’s a tougher road.
Since the initial Rothmans bursary, which enabled him to study for a year in England, and decided his future, Snell has been selling everything he owns in New Zealand, including his house, to fund himself through the university course. With him in America are his wife and two children.
‘I have a different philosophy now on property and possessions. I have used the money for study and that has given me – if I’m lucky enough to get the qualifications – as much, if not more, pleasure.’
Snell and his wife are back in New Zealand to speak at a sports dinner, but the visit was brief. His American quest is far from over. He is going on to do physiological research in California, completing a masters degree, then on to a PhD.
‘I’m looking forward to publishing a paper – to do my masters work and getting it published. I have a strong desire for achievement and recognition. Once you’ve made up your mind that you are interested in a certain area, and that a lot of expertise exists in that area overseas, then it’s a natural reaction to want to lift your own knowledge up into that vicinity. And even if you’re chasing that knowledge for its own sake, that’s all right. I don’t have to justify that to anyone.
‘There are two ways you can have an effect on people. By your authority or leadership talents – personality factors – or by knowing a hell of a lot about your chosen subject.’
Snell has chosen the second way. He obviously feels his personality, his charisma, is not strong. Yet, strangely, it is. It lies in his humbleness and honesty, and in the candour of his blue eyes where the pupils stay wide to the light.
‘I have a high degree of anxiety accentuated in situations where I have doubts about my ability to cope.’
This anxiety, he agrees, is caused by a fear of failing. Fear of failure! Maybe the roots of this go back to school days. Maybe the explanation of New Zealand’s surprising dominance in middle-distance running goes back to the old School Certificate examination, where droves of unwitting 15-year-olds passed or failed in 50-50 ratios. Walker failed. Snell failed once, before passing.
Snell burned out that failure with an animal freedom – running. He went high. When he stopped running he stood unknowing for a time, then began to seek the mental freedoms, surprised and exultant that he could do it.
Exercise physiology – the long-term effects of exercise, its effects on growth and development, its function in protection from heart disease and rehabilitation after heart attacks, the parameters of exercise, oxygen uptake, adrenalin flows, heart rates.
This is the analytical and mental dimension of the running Snell did so freely. In Aldous Huxley’s Island – a portrait of the ideal society – children undergoing the perfect education were first shown a flower. Then they analysed its into its metals, stamen and pistils. Then they beheld it again, whole, as a simple existential and improbable object. They understood it.
Snell is working towards that understanding of a runner – a union of his own capabilities in body and mind.
‘The medals lost their lustre long ago. I want to stay in learning a long as possible, until I’m ready to step out into the world and apply knowledge. I want to make a worthwhile contribution to society. I had no real skills to offer, but give me one of the five years or so that I’ll need to become qualified and that will have changed…’
Note: Sir Peter Snell went on to gain a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from Washington State University.