Athletics: Three-time Olympic champion Sir Peter Snell dies, aged 80

New Zealand has lost one of its greatest Olympians after Sir Peter Snell died aged 80. Credit: Image - Photosport; Video - Newshub

Three-time Olympic champion Sir Peter Snell has died in the United States, aged 80.

The NZ Sports Hall of Fame announced the death of arguably its most famous - and first - occupant on Saturday morning, after he passed away in his sleep at his home in Dallas, Texas.

"It is with deep sadness that we announce the death in Dallas of Peter Snell, one of New Zealand's greatest athletes," it posted on Facebook.

"A three-time Olympic champion and world recordholder, he died while asleep at his home in Dallas around noon on Thursday, Dallas time, his wife Miki said.

"He had been looking forward to his 81st birthday on Tuesday."

Snell had suffered from heart problems in recent years and passed out while driving last month, crashing into several parked cars. The episode prevented him from flying to Monaco for a World Athletics reunion of world mile recordholders, where he was to receive plaques for his world marks over the mile and 1000m.

"I even tried to go against my heart-failure doctor's advice and showed up at the airport for my flight," he told the gathering, via video message.

"I felt it was too risky to board an eight-hour flight, given how poorly I was feeling at the time."

Miki Snell insists her husband did not suffer near the end.

"I want people to know that he was living his life," she told NZ Sports Hall of Fame. "He was not bed-ridden."

Sir Peter apparently planned to cook a roast dinner that night and had talked about playing table tennis - his latest sporting passion. They were preparing to go shopping, when Sir Peter dozed off to sleep.

Miki Snell could not wake him and paramedics called to their home were also unsuccessful in their attempts to revive him.

In his prime, Sir Peter was an athlete ahead of his time, breaking world records for 800m (1m 44.3s), 880 yards (1m 45.1s) , 1000m (2m 16.6s), mile (3m 54.4s) and the 4x one mile relay, combining with Murray Halberg, Gary Philpott and Barry Magee.

Training under legendary coach Arthur Lydiard, he was a natural athlete, who could have excelled at any number of sports. He burst onto the international athletics stage with an 800m gold medal at the Rome Olympics, where training partner Halberg also won the 5000m less than an hour later.

Four years later, Sir Peter defended his 800m crown and added the 1500m - the first such double since 1920. No man has achieved that feat since.

His 800m world record is still the NZ national record, the fastest time ever run on grass and the oldest standing national record for an Olympic event.

Sir Peter also won the 1962 Commonwealth Games 880 yards/mile double in Perth and won NZ Sportsman of the Year - later named after Halberg - in 1960 and 1964.

After retiring from athletics, Sir Peter moved to the United States, where he pursued an academic career, gaining a degree in human performance from University of California, Davis and then a doctorate in exercise physiology from Washington State University.

In his later years, he competed in masters orienteering and then table tennis, where he teamed with wife Miki at the 2017 World Masters Games in Auckland.

He is also survived by daughters Amanda and Jacqui.

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