Sebastian Coe on his way to a world 1500m record at the Weltklasse Zurich meeting in 1979 (© Popperfoto via Getty Images)
On 15 August 1979, Sebastian Coe set a world record over 1500m at Zurich’s fabled Weltklasse meeting.
It was hardly unexpected. The British athlete had set world records for 800m and the mile at separate meetings in Oslo a month earlier and it was known he was looking for a fast run in Zurich.
Breaking a world record is a unique moment in the career of an athlete, Coe says, but what gave this particular moment added significance was the record he broke and the man who set it. Coe ran 3:32.03 (ratified as 3:32.1), to shave just over a tenth of a second off the record Tanzania’s Filbert Bayi set when winning at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch five years earlier.
Bayi ran 3:32.16 (3:32.2). But it was the way he ran it that makes Coe characterise that record as “one of the best on the books”. Despite the form he carried into Zurich, a new record was “no gimme”.
Filbert Bayi en route to the world record in the 1500m at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand (© Getty Images)
Bayi was an instinctive front runner. His world record in Christchurch resulted from a bravura demonstration of the tactic. As with the most recent Commonwealth men’s 1500m in Birmingham won so dramatically by Australia’s Oliver Hoare, the Christchurch final was of Olympic quality. Among Bayi’s opponents were New Zealanders John Walker and Rod Dixon, Kenyans Ben Jipcho and Mike Boit, Australia’s Graham Crouch and England’s Brendan Foster.
Some might be intimidated by a field of such quality. Not Bayi. He blasted out from the gun, running the first 400m in 54.9 and reaching 800m well clear of his pursuers in 1:52.2. Inevitably, the pace eased: 1200m was reached in 2:50.8. On the final bend, Walker, Jipcho, Dixon and Crouch were closing the gap. Bayi surged one last time, finishing off Jipcho, Dixon and Crouch. Walker was last to yield, as a 41.4 final 300m took Bayi to a glorious world record and gold medal.
Recalling the race at the World Athletics Heritage Mile Night in November 2019, Bayi said he was confident he would win “when I hit the last 200 metres”. His rivals were battling each other, but “I was able just to concentrate on myself. If someone had come close to me, I could have just gone fast with my last kick.”
Sounds simple, but Walker assured the audience it was not.
“Filbert ran an extraordinary race. I was coming from behind, but I was never going to catch him,” he said. “He went straight out from the gun and went to the front and broke the world record. That was never heard of in European racing.”
Never heard of, perhaps, but Europe certainly heard all about it. The Commonwealth race was held in the early hours of Saturday morning, UK time, and it led every sports bulletin on the BBC’s Saturday sport coverage. Bayi set a template for future 1500m runners. Almost every big 1500m these days goes off at the sort of pace Bayi set, although it remains a rare brave soul who does it solo.
Coe’s Zurich run was a more structured affair – in its planning, at least. Kenya’s Kip Koskei would set the pace initially and then Boit would take it up for as long as he could or, at the least, stay close enough to provide some competitive stimulus.
Such plans were thrown out the window within seconds of the start. Koskei hared off at a great rate. Without hesitation, Coe followed. Within a couple of hundred metres, Koskei and Coe were already some 5-10 metres ahead of the rest. Among those in the pack was Australian runner Steve Foley who would finish third in a personal best. He knew the pace would be on, but this?
“I thought, ‘bloody hell: this is fast’.”
Seb Coe breaks the world 1500m record in Zurich in 1979 (© Getty Images)
Fate and Koskei’s over-exuberance meant that the Zurich 1500m would be not all that dissimilar to Bayi’s race after all. At 400m in 54.25, Peter Coe, Seb’s father and coach, was yelling that it was too fast. The second lap slowed to 58.9 (1:53.19): now, he shouted it was too slow!
“My father, yelling from the infield, relayed the blunt and unambiguous message that unless I went for it alone from roughly half-way, I would fail in the attempt,” says Coe. “I didn’t need a second opinion. He was a numbers man to his fingertips.”
With two laps to go, Coe had moved into the lead. The capacity crowd chanted – “Coe! Coe! Coe!” – spurring him to a 56.3 third lap, which took him from one second down on Bayi’s pace to 1.3 seconds ahead. Where Bayi had Walker coming up behind him in the final straight, Coe had no-one. He gave almost all that margin of safety back, getting to the line with a stride to spare.
“By only a couple of tenths of a second, I broke Bayi’s record – and it was the hardest of the 11 that I broke,” adds Coe.
Catch me if you can
‘Catch me if you can’ summed up Bayi’s bold approach to racing. Appropriately, it is also the title of an autobiography he has written with journalist and publisher Myles Schrag, detailing not just his running career and the lifelong friendships formed, but also his contribution to Tanzania as an educator and sports administrator. He has set up a school and a foundation in his name to improve his country and community.
The recent Commonwealth Games in Birmingham gave Bayi and Coe the opportunity to catch up. Bayi presented his successor as 1500m world record-holder a copy of the book, inscribed: “My friend, we will remain friends for life. Thank you for everything. Filbert Bayi.”
Reflecting on their friendship, Coe says: “Our paths first crossed in the Emsley Carr Mile at Crystal Palace in 1977. It was my big breakthrough, my first front and back page lead. We became friends in the athlete village in Moscow (1980 Olympics) where he got a silver in the steeplechase.
“It was great to sit and watch athletics with him in Birmingham. It’s one of those friendships that has endured for well over 40 years. There is a bond between world record-holders of mutual respect, and I was delighted to receive a signed copy of his book.”
Sebastian Coe and Filbert Bayi with Dame Louise Martin and Tessa Sanderson at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham
This anniversary of Coe's world record-breaking run falls on the first day of athletics action at the European Championships in Munich (15-21), where Norway's Olympic 1500m champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen will defend his 1500m and 5000m titles and Britain's world 1500m gold medallist Jake Wightman will contest the 800m.
Since Coe's 3:32.03 in Zurich, the world record has been taken to 3:26.00, achieved by Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj in 1998. Could that mark soon be under threat?
"My instinct is that record will stand for some time yet," says Coe, "even with athletes of the calibre of Jakob Ingebrigtsen, Timothy Cheruiyot and Jake Wightman keen to assume the title of fastest man ever over 1500m."
One thing is for sure - there will continue to be some fierce battles on the track while they attempt it.
Len Johnson for World Athletics