29 May 2018

Pauline Cowens and the Snell Shoe

From Ours: Treasures from Te Papa, 8:00 am on 29 May 2018

This shoe doesn't come with the bells and whistles of modern running shoes - there's no foam cushioning, titanium cooling spheres or fancy flex grooves. 

But take a closer look and you'll notice the inspired and innovative touches that make this shoe so special.

It tells the story of one athlete's spectacular sporting success, and loyalty to the shoes his coach made him. But it's also part of a larger story about New Zealand's sporting and national identity and our ability to improvise and modify in the face of competition. And arguably the greatest day in our sporting history.

'Arthur Lydiard' spiked track shoe, 1960, New Zealand. Gift of Sir Peter Snell, 2017.

'Arthur Lydiard' spiked track shoe, 1960, New Zealand. Gift of Sir Peter Snell, 2017. Photo: Te Papa

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In this week's episode, we turn our attention to the shoes that Peter Snell was wearing when he won the 800 metres at the Rome Olympic Games in 1960 at the age of 21.

Snell gifted 14 pieces from his collection to Te Papa in 2017, including two Olympic gold medals and one of his famous shoes.

But, where's the other shoe?

It turns out Snell donated the left shoe to Tauranga Girls' College in the mid-60s.

"The left shoe is on top of a block of rimu, it's a beautiful trophy, and it lives in the principal's office at Tauranga Girls College," says former principal of the college, Pauline Cowens. 

Snell wanted to encourage competition between Tauranga Girls and Rotorua Girls High School in athletics.

"What he didn't probably appreciate was how it would make the whole history stay alive. 

"Because every single year when the two schools do their two sports exchanges and we compete for the trophy we revisit Peter Snell, we revisit the Olympic movement and we revisit the importance of sport," says Cowens.   

Peter Snell sprints to win the 800m final in front of Roger Moens from Belgium (L), on September 02, 1960, during the Olympic Games in Rome.

Peter Snell sprints to win the 800m final on 2 September, 1960, during the Olympic Games in Rome. Photo: AFP or licensors

The shoe was made especially for Snell by brothers Arthur and Wally Lydiard. In fact, Arthur Lydiard's signature can be seen on the side in gold letters.

Lydiard is considered a ground-breaking athletics coach due to his revolutionary endurance training methods for his students. His earlier training as a shoemaker is less known. 

"I think it was the pattern of training and the distances, the sheer distances that he made Peter run - and Arthur himself ran in Auckland - the training was really intensive," Te Papa's head of New Zealand and Pacific Cultures Bronwyn Labrum says.

Lydiard's students included not only Snell, but Murray Halberg and Barry Magee.

The 1950s and 60s was a golden period for middle distance athletics in New Zealand, Labrum says, and Lydiard was responsible for a lot of innovation during that era.

Including the shoes he made for his athletes. 

"If you have a look at the sole, on the heel he added rubber so that it would be easier to run on a hard track, on a cinder track," Labrum says.

"[The shoe's] almost totally leather, whereas now we'd have synthetic uppers, synthetic soles, lots of cushioning aeration and air built into it." 

In his book Running with Lydiard, co-written by Lydiard and Garth Gilmour and first published in 1983, Lydiard says Snell had been used to running on grass tracks back home. So, Lydiard decided to make Snell some shoes to counteract the effects of a hard track in Rome.

He also wrote that the placement of spikes near the toe of a track shoe is important as that helps an athlete gain "maximum traction".

However, the shoe's somewhat unconventional style is not quite so popular with new generations of athletic students, says Cowens.

"Arthur Lydiard was a genius, it's a lovely piece of footwear - but these days, if you look at what you could buy at any local sports shop, it really does look antiquated.  

"There's no way, I think, that the girls would see themselves running in something like that now," she says.  

Pauline Cowens with the other Snell shoe.

Pauline Cowens with the other Snell shoe. Photo: SunLive

Snell's shoes represent an era of innovation in middle-distance running, but they are also symbolic of Snell's loyalty - to his coach and his shoes. 

Adidas had initially overlooked Snell in favour of more well-known athletes at Rome, but that quickly changed after he won the 800m semi-final.

"Adidas were supplying all the other finalists...he was offered Adidas shoes after he won, and he said no, he preferred the shoes that had been designed by Arthur and Wally Lydiard," says Labrum.

Dr Bronwyn Labrum, Te Papa, Head of New Zealand and Pacific Cultures.

Bronwyn Labrum, Head of New Zealand and Pacific Cultures at Te Papa. Photo: Michael Hall / Te Papa

In Running with Lydiard, Lydiard describes Snell stepping onto the winner's dais in his "plain white spikes, which was not the effect Adidas had in mind".

Snell became an international celebrity after his feat in Rome, Labrum says.

"He won international sportsperson of the year, he went on to win more medals, he became the sportsperson of the 20th century for New Zealand."

These days, Snell's right shoe is well into its retirement and sits nestled between handmade, protective cushioning in a plastic container at Te Papa, safe from any flying objects should an earthquake hit.

"We expect this to last for hundreds of years so visitors and the nation can remember what he achieved and see this - quirky, from our eyes - looking shoe which has such a rich story to tell," says Labrum.

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