Peter Snell was the 800-meter Olympic champion, coming out of relative obscurity to set an Olympic record at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome and win the gold medal. But in Tokyo in 1964, Snell was not only the favorite in the 800 meters, he and many others were expecting him to compete and win in the more glamorous 1500-meter race.
While our stereotypical view of Olympic champions are they are super confident and expect to win, the reality is that many oscillate between expectations of victory and the inevitability of disaster. Peter Snell of New Zealand may have exemplified the latter.
As British Olympic reporter, Neil Allen, noted in his book, Olympic Diary Tokyo 1964, Snell was shy and filled with doubt prior to the start of competition.
Two years ago the shy New Zealander and I had sat on the grass in Geraldon, Western Australia, and I had listened to him ponder, with worried brow, his problems in training for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games. Now he was behaving as though he was the last man in the world to hold the records for 800 meters, 880 yards and the mile, the last man you could imagine had won the Olympic 800 meter title four years ago.
“Running both events here might take it out of me, you know,” he said, staring at the ground. “My training was going so badly back at the beginning of last month that I got to the pitch where I couldn’t care less about the Olympics. There are times when you wonder how on earth you could run a 4:30 mile. You no longer have the ability to punish yourself.”
After a successful trial run in the 800 meters, Snell decided he would go for both the 800 and 1500 meter championships. He understood the ramifications of having to run heats in both races, with the possibility that the effort and strain of competing in both could mean doing poorly in both. And those doubts would not go away, as Snell wrote in his autobiography, No Bugles, No Drums.
My most nerve-racking period of the Games was the night before my first race. I’d made the decision to try for the double and promptly that night all sorts of doubts crowded into my mind in a sleep-wrecking procession. Quite seriously I wondered whether the decision was the right one. I felt I could produce a really good performance over 1500 meters. But if I ran in the 800 meters first, there was a strong possibility that not only could I run out of a place in that event – or even fail to qualify at all – I could find myself too tired for the 1500. I could, through tackling both, miss out on both. Was I being too greedy?