Filbert Bayi with World Athletics President Sebastian Coe at a Mile event in Monac0 (© Philippe Fitte)
Among the past contests highlighted during last month’s World Athletics Heritage Mile Night in Monaco was the epic 1500m race in Christchurch, New Zealand, at the 1974 Commonwealth Games, where an unheralded Filbert Bayi produced one of the most audacious performances in athletics history as he led from gun to tape to win gold in a world record of 3:32.2.
The 20-year-old Tanzanian took almost a second off the 1967 mark of 3:33.1 set by Jim Ryun of the United States – also present in Monaco - with home runner John Walker – another honoured guest – chasing him down the final straight.
The following year Walker – who had also beaten Ryun’s mark with his silver medal performance of 3:32.52 - became the first man to better 3:50 for the mile, running 3:49.4 in Gothenburg to beat the record of 3:51.00 set by Bayi earlier that year.
The Kiwi went on to win Olympic 1500m gold at the 1976 Montreal Games – a Games from which Bayi was precluded because of an African boycott protesting against the New Zealand rugby union team playing against the then apartheid nation of South Africa.
Notwithstanding Bayi’s later frustrations, that 1974 run stands as one of the great athletics performances in one of the great athletics races. For all time.
Speaking after the assembled fellow athletes and guests had had another opportunity to view the closing stages of that stupendous competition in Christchurch, Bayi reflected with wry satisfaction upon his landmark achievement.
“When I arrived in New Zealand nobody took much notice,” Bayi said. “My friend John Walker was a citizen of New Zealand, so the money was put on him. But John knew me. And we knew that something might happen there because there were also some very good Kenyans there like Ben Jipcho and Mike Boit.”
Commenting a little later in the evening upon that extended display of courage and self confidence, Bayi added: “John was watching me when I was running in front of him. They didn’t expect I would win that race. John knew that maybe I would die – but I was prepared for that one!”
Bayi said he had already decided upon his race plan following his success in the 1973 All-African Games in Lagos, where he had won the 1500m title with a front-running performance that had defeated a field including Kenya’s double Olympic champion Kip Keino.
“I felt I would do the same as this front runner in New Zealand,” he said. “I knew that I would be a front runner because nobody recognised me. And that’s what I did.
“People thought they would get me in the final 200 metres. I was taking it easy, and when John was coming close to me I accelerated in the last 100 metres.”
There was no big screen to watch in the stadium on that occasion. Asked if he had looked back at the pursuing field during the race, Bayi readily asserted: “Yes. Several times. In the corner I saw them before the last 200 metres. And again with 50 metres to go I turned quickly and I saw a black shirt and I knew it was John Walker.
“So then I said, ‘OK, now I have to put all my strength together.”
Asked when he felt victory was secure, however, he responded: “I think the point was when I hit the last 200 metres. I knew after that nobody would catch me.
“I knew that they were all hitting each other – John Walker, Mike Boit, Rod Dixon and Ben Jipcho. And 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.”
Simple as he makes it sound, it was a strategy that took enormous confidence and courage against a field that included the world’s greatest runners. Did he, at any point, question whether his bold attitude was misjudged?
“You know why I didn’t think that?” he responded. “Because I’d trained. I’d trained, because I knew that those guys would wait and they would think they would pick me up. And I knew that if I ran ahead they would just think that over the last 200 metres, 100 metres, they would catch me.
“And I was calculating in my mind. Making some mathematics there. And I said ‘Ok, now’. I think you can see on the clip at 50 metres when I see that Walker is behind me, and then you can see - high knees, arms pumping up, I go to the line…”
Reflecting upon his enforced absence from the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, he said: “It was difficult for me because I was ready. Training for four years, and then two months before the Olympics something like that happens. What can you do?”
As things turned out, Bayi – who went on to take Olympic silver in the 3000m steeplechase behind Poland’s Bronislaw Malinowski at the 1980 Moscow Games - also suffered an untimely bout of malaria before the Games that may have undermined any possible challenge. But he is clear in his mind, as he looks back now, that he could have had a medal – and maybe the best one.
“The way John Walker won in 3:39, I knew I could have had a medal, if it wasn’t the gold it was any medal among the medals, and maybe the gold medal.
“I didn’t watch the Olympic final on TV, but I followed the athletics in the newspapers.
“When I saw it was won in 3:39, I knew that that was my race.”
Asked how many times he had seen that historic Christchurch race, he responded with a grin:
“Many times. And every time when I see it, it is just like the same day. It is just like a live, live, live race.”
Commenting on that same race earlier in the evening, Walker said: “I’ve looked at the video over the years. Filbert ran an extraordinary race. I was coming from behind but I was never going to catch him. 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. So – well done my friend.”
Mike Rowbottom for World Athletics