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.

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Peter Snell
Peter Snell of New Zealand, from the book “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad”

 

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?

No Bugles No Drums

mal whitfield obit-1-master675
Mal Whitfield after winning the 800-meter event at the 1948 London Games. Credit Central Press/Hilton Archive, via Getty Images.

   

One of the powerful images of the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 were the bowed heads and raised fists of sprinters gold and bronze medalists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. They were protesting the state of race relations in the United States.

But in 1964, a less well known protest was made by a three-time gold medalist who actually called for a boycott of the Tokyo Games. In the 1950s and 1960s, one of the most respected of American track and field athletes was Mal Whitfield, a winner of five medals in the 1948 Olympics in London, and the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, including two golds in the 800 meters in both Games, and one in the 4×400 meter relay in London.

And as related in this New York Times article, a member of the US Air Force’s famed Tuskegee Airmen, Whitfield flew 27 bombing missions during the Korean War, and became the first US military serviceman on active duty to win gold medals in the Olympic Games. He was also the first black man to receive the prestigious Sullivan Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding amateur athlete, in 1954.

Whitfield, who passed away on November 18, 2015 at the age of 91, was one of the most respected American athletes and sports ambassadors of his time. And so in retrospect, it seems surprising that in Ebony Magazine’s March 1964 edition, Whitfield penned this story titled “Let’s Boycott the Olympics”.

“I advocate that every Negro athlete eligible to participate in the Olympic Games in Japan next October boycott the games if Negro Americans by that time have not been guaranteed full and equal rights as first-class citizens. I make this proposal for two reasons: First, it is time for American Negro athletes to join in the civil rights fight – a fight that is far from won, despite certain progress made during the past year. For the most part, Negro athletes have been conspicuous by their absence from the numerous civil rights battles around the country. Second, it is time for America to live up to its promises of Liberty, Equality and Justice for all, or be shown up to the worlds as a nation where the color of one’s skin takes precedence over the quality of one’s mind and character.”

 

Ebony Magazine_Mal Whitfield
From the March 1964 Ebony Magazine

 

“What prestige would the United States have if every single Negro athlete, after qualifying for the U. S. team, simply decided to stay at home and not compete because adequate civil rights legislations had not been passed by Congress? For one thing, such action would seriously dampen American

Ann Packer wins 800 meters.
Ann Packer wins 800 meters.

She wanted to go shopping.

Ann Packer had won the silver medal in the women’s 400 meters, finishing second to Australian, Betty Cuthbert. So instead of bothering with the 800-meter race, it was time to ease the disappointment with a trip into town. Her fiance, and captain of Team GB at the 1964 Tokyo Games, Robbie Brightwell, convinced Packer that she was here to compete, and that she should. So she did.

Packer had little experience in the 800 meters. And as you can see in this film clip, Packer was at the back of the pack for most of the race. But in the final two hundred meters, she climbed to third, and in a burst sprinted out a dominating finish. A world record finish, in fact.

Packer explained subsequently that the 800-meter race for women had only been introduced 4 years earlier in Rome, so not many women were experienced in this distance, and for her personally, she had no preconcpetions about how to run the race. But being naïve, and being a sprinter, was Packer’s advantage. As she later said, “ignorance proved to be bliss.”

Sport Illustrated also noted the Packer cool, a modesty and lack of concern about the bigness of the moment, and that her future husband had to re-emphasize to Packer that her achievements were indeed a big deal.

“But what is it, really?” Ann said. “So many have won medals. I don’t think it is better than doing anything else well. I won a gold medal because I ran twice around a track, that’s all.”

Brightwell looked at her. “I don’t think you realize