Peter Snell Part 2: Going Back to Surge Forward and Win the 800 Meter Championship in Tokyo

Snell in 800 meters in Tokyo
Peter Snell ahead of George Kerr of Jamaica, Wilson Kiprugut of Kenya (bronze) and Bill Crothers of Canada (silver)

Peter Snell was confident. He had ran a time trial run of 800 meters in 1 minute and 47 seconds, a very fast time in 1964, despite the poor conditions of the track. This is when he knew he was peaking at the right time, and thought, not only could he win the 800, but also the 1500 meter competition at the Tokyo Olympics.

In the finals of the 800 meters, Snell drew the first lane, which he thought was unlucky because he would have to either “go like a madman and hit the front so you can maneuver with the field behind you and allow only as many pass as you want, or you can start slowly and try to work your race from the back of the field,” he wrote in his autobiography, No Bugles No Drums. “Either way can be troublesome and an in-between start can cause all sorts of jostling and tangling.”

With that understanding, Snell chose the first option with the intent of just trialing the lead runner, Wilson Kiprigut of Kenya, who was expected to jump out to a fast start. By sticking to the shoulder of the pacesetter, he would be able to avoid being boxed in and slowed. As it turned out, Kiprigut did not race out to the lead, and Snell ended up boxed in amidst a group at the front.

With 250 meters, Snell’s plan was to go all out. But he was trapped.

My pre-race plan had called for a sustained sprint from about 250-to-go. Now the whole position was confused. I was running easily within myself and, unlike Rome, where the circumstances were similar, I felt I was capable of dropping back out of the box, going around the field and still being able to challenge. That’s what I had to do. This involved two separate moves: a surge from the rear of the field to about fourth position with a clear run three or four wide which took me to the end of the back straight; then a second and final effort as I fought past Kiprugut and Kerr, who were locked together, and sprinted desperately into the curve. It was desperate because my plan had gone wrong and my run was coming late against fast finishers.

Snell on the victory stand_800 meters
Crothers, Snell and Kiprugut

But soon, desperation gave way to elation. Snell hit the tape, setting an Olympic record. Despite having to drop back and swing wide to take the lead, Snell still relaxed at the end, as he wrote, “subconsciously” holding back for the 1500 meter competition to come.

Watch this video highlighting Snell’s exciting victory in the 800 meter race in Tokyo.