'Our greatest ever sports person' - Sir Peter Snell remembered as NZ's best

Sir Peter Snell's incredible life and career has been remembered by one of his modern day contemporaries, with current Olympian Nick Willis and broadcaster Keith Quinn paying tribute earlier today.

Sir Peter Snell at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo Source: Photosport

Sir Peter Snell died aged 80 in his sleep in his USA home in Dallas, and was one of New Zealand's true sporting greats.

Sir Peter won three Olympic gold medals during his glittering career, first winning the 800m at the 1960 games in Rome, before defending his title in Tokyo four years later and also adding the 1500m crown.

Sir Peter also claimed two gold medals at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, winning the 880 yards and one mile events.

Speaking to 1 NEWS from Arizona, Willis talked about the lasting impact Sir Peter Snell has had not just on athletics, but on New Zealand sport as a whole.

"Not only the best ever Olympian, I think he's got to be our greatest ever sports person of all time as well," Willis said.

"Just his utter dominance of a worldwide sport, not only was he the best ever back in the 60s, he would still be a favourite for a medal 55 years later today."

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Snell won three golds at the Rome and Tokyo Olympic games. Source: Breakfast

Sir Peter Snell's record 800m time of 1:44.3 still stands as the fastest time on a grass track, only beaten as an Oceania record in July last year.

So dominant was that performance, Sir Peter's record time would have earned him the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

That record has long been the benchmark for Kiwi middle-distance runners, Willis added.

"His record still stands, he's the fastest ever 800m runner for New Zealand and none of us could get within a second of it.

"It's a terribly sad day, but also a time to reflect on all the amazing accomplishments as an athlete, but also his great service to the community as a person."

Standing at 1.79m and weighing 80kg at the peak of his powers, Sir Peter Snell was far from the stereotypical picture of a middle distance runner, Willis said. 

That physique changed the perception of what a middle distance athlete could look like at the highest level.

"There was always a trend with running that you needed to be this little thinner wee physique that sort of tip-toed around the track," Willis said

"But Peter Snell took that away and brought this sort of rugby player powerful physique, and you put him under 100 miles a week of endurance training that Arthur Lydiard put on him.

"Coming out the other side you had this powerful, fit athlete that can just tear up the track and pull away from the athletes by just exerting such force into the track but still having the endurance to carry that mass around the 400m oval.

For more on this story, watch 1 NEWS at 6pm. Source: 1 NEWS

"Such a sight to behold, even watching on the grainy footage.

"I was born much later than his performances, so it's still a sight to see now."

Renowned broadcaster Keith Quinn also joined the tributes for Sir Peter, saying "he's right up there with the best of our All Blacks, and cricketers, and rugby league players.

"But just ahead, maybe, and just up there with Ed Hilary. One of our all time greats," Quinn told 1 NEWS.

"He was a very decent man, a very modest guy, they say that over in Dallas, where he lived for the best part of 50 years, hardly anyone knew about him because he never told anyone about the fame back here in New Zealand.

"But he was never forgotten by people in New Zealand and that's been shown today by the reaction from North to South about his passing.

"He was a very aggressive runner, in the Olympic 800m in 1960 there was no way through for him near the finish line. But he just burst through the inside and won his gold medal."

Sir Peter would have turned 81 years old on Tuesday.