Famed New Zealand Olympic middle distance runner Sir Peter Snell has died, age 80.

Sports historian and friend Ron Palenski confirmed to RNZ Sir Peter had died at his home in Dallas on Thursday, about midday local time.

He said Sir Peter’s wife, Miki, called to tell him of his friend’s death this morning.

He said she told him she wanted people to know he was living life and not bedridden after developing heart problems a few years ago.

“They were intending to go shopping for a roast that Peter was going to cook that night before they played table tennis,” Palenski said.

“While Miki was getting ready, Peter nodded off to sleep which he quite often did. But this time he didn’t wake up. Miki couldn’t wake him up. So she called 911 and paramedics couldn’t revive him,” he said.

“Miki said that Peter didn’t want a lot of fuss which is typical of him of course.

“They’re going to have a memorial service in Dallas at some stage but he’ll be cremated and in his words he didn’t want people trooping up to his grave.”

Sir Peter won gold in the 800m in the Rome Olympics in 1960, setting a new international record, and the 800m and 1500m in the following Tokyo Olympics in 1964.

He would have turned 81 on Tuesday.

He was regarded as New Zealand’s greatest sportsman, so outstanding that huge crowds gathered to watch him race. Born in Opunake in 1938, he was so outstanding an athlete that his name became a figure of speech signifying excellence.

Coached by the legendary Arthur Lydiard, he also won two Empire Games gold medals and a clutch of world records.

He was 21 and almost unknown when he went to the 1960 Olympics and, on a day still regarded as the greatest in New Zealand athletics, won the 800m shortly before his teammate Murray Halberg won the 5000 metres.

Years later, in an RNZ interview, Sir Peter recalled his victory.

“It’s still pretty clear. Those first memories always are.”

“That was an unbelievable moment for me, I sort of felt I was in a dream-like state. ‘I’ve actually won a gold medal, it can’t be, how can it be?’ It actually took a while to sink in. I felt dazed.”

In the five years following that triumph, he dominated middle distance running, usually winning by large margins and setting world records.

He crowned his career with gold medals in the 800m and 1500m at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and retired the following year. Many thought he had scarcely tapped his potential.

After his retirement, he worked as the Rothmans Foundation’s director of coaching but found his fame irksome and after a year at Loughborough College in England, decided to pursue an academic career.

In the early 1970s he packed up his family and moved to the United States to take a BSc degree at the University of California. After gaining a PhD in Sports Medicine at Washington State University he took up a post-doctoral fellowship in Dallas, Texas.

He remained there as director of the Human Performance Laboratory and was a scientific advisor to the US Olympic Committee.

Internationally known in the field of exercise science, he was an inaugural inductee of the International Scholar-Athlete Hall of Fame at the University of Rhode Island in 1999.

Despite having moved to the US almost 50 years ago, Sir Peter kept close links with New Zealand, returning regularly and supporting the development of world class talent through the Peter Snell Institute of Sport.

In 2000 he was voted New Zealand Athlete of the Century and became a Distinguished Companion of the Order of New Zealand in 2002.

In 2009 he accepted the title of Knight Companion of the Order.

At a ceremony in 2017, he handed over two of his gold medals and 12 other items – including one of the shoes he wore when he won in 1960 – to New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa.

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