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Bayi's record may be gone but it should never be forgotten

IT might not quite be 40 years of hurt but a lingering sense of frustration dogs the once fleet footsteps of Filbert Bayi.

Filbert Bayi's world record 1500 metres in Christchurch was groundbreaking. Picture: Tony Duffy
Filbert Bayi's world record 1500 metres in Christchurch was groundbreaking. Picture: Tony Duffy

The 60-year-old sits in the Hilton Hotel in Glasgow surrounded by the paraphernalia of the 2014 Commonwealth Games but, on a cold Scottish morning, his memory is jogged back to his day in the sun.

On February 2, 1974, at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, the Tanzanian won what many consider to have been the greatest 1500 metres race of all time. It is certainly seared on memory of anyone who has watched it. Bayi set a world record of 3 minutes 32.2 seconds by outrunning the local hero, John Walker, who also went under the old world record set by Jim Ryun, in finishing second. Third-placed Ben Jipcho of Kenya, fourth-placed Rod Dixon of New Zealand and fifth-placed Graham Crouch of Australia also ran the fourth, fifth and seventh fastest 1500m times to that date. It took five years, and Seb Coe, to break Bayi's world record but it still stands as the Commonwealth record.

Bayi, who also won a silver medal in the 3000m steeplechase at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and broke the world mile record in 1975, is slightly mystified - even miffed - at the way his Christchurch achievement has been treated in the history of athletics.

"It has been forgotten," he says without anger. "People never talk about Filbert Bayi. There must be something wrong with this athletics family because a lot of people have been inducted in the hall of fame by the IAAF but Filbert Bayi has never been mentioned. I do not know why.

"Think about the change that occurred in the 1500m at Christchurch. The 1500m was usually a slow race and then a sprint [at the finish]. But in 1974 I changed that from the beginning to the end. And not many people have thought about that."

Bayi set off quickly and, at 800m, was 20m clear of a class field. He points out that previous and many subsequent 1500m world records have been set with the help of pacemakers. "The person who wins the race is behind watching," he points out. "They are assisted by others. I do not believe that is a real world record. The world record is when somebody uses all his effort and does it by himself."

So does he feel that his achievement has not been properly recognised? "Definitely, 100%. It is only now that people are realising what happened. It is now almost exactly 40 years on and I am being interviewed by people in Australia, UK and New Zealand."

He recalls the finish precisely, noting the positions of Kipcho and Walker when they launched their desperate challenges for gold. "I looked back and saw people coming. And then I waited. And then John Walker came close to me - about three metres away - at 50 metres and then I just accelerated. I saw the finish line and thought, 'Nobody will catch me'."

And nobody did.

The celebration was joyous and deserved. But there has been sober reflection. "I look at that race and I think about rewinding time because there was no money then, my friend. It was real amateur. If you break the world record now you have a pension."

This is said without bitterness only with an acceptance of the reality of modern times. Bayi, secretary general of the Tanzania Olympic Committee, is still a passionate supporter and promoter of athletics. He speaks with purpose of attempting to take Tanzania back to the top of world athletics by training performers who should be peaking at the 2020 Olympics.

Before that there is Glasgow 2014 and he is a Commonwealth Games enthusiast by instinct and by experience. "For those who say the Commonwealth Games are not important, they do not know what they are saying," he says. He points out that every athlete needs elite competition and refers to his campaign of winning the All-African title in 1973 - he beat the great Kip Keino - before succeeding in Christchurch and then achieving an Olympic medal. "You cannot jump from nothing," he says of the need to race in top-class finals.

He was deprived of a rematch with Walker in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal because Tanzania observed the African boycott of the event after the All Blacks toured South Africa but the International Olympic Association allowed New Zealand to compete in the Games. Walker won the 1500m. Bayi, too, remembers where he was when Coe took his 1500m world record. "I watched it from a hospital bed in Hamburg where I was suffering from malaria," he says.

The past has its glory and its frustrations but Bayi is animated by the future and his visit to Glasgow has the serious purpose of assessing facilities and helping with the necessary bureaucracy that accompanies participation in such an event. Bayi, who is standing in for the country's chef du mission who could not make the trip because of family reasons, also visited Glasgow in the summer when he was impressed by the preparations.

Yesterday, he prepared to step from the warmth of the Hilton to head to Hampden to see where those who seek to follow in his footsteps can attain glory, perhaps even world records. "I am always at the Commonwealth Games," he says, "and it is never announced before the 1500m that we have the world record holder in the stadium." He says this with a wistfulness rather than with any sense of entitlement.

The 1500m men's final takes place at Hampden on Saturday, August 2. Filbert Bayi will be there. It would be fitting if the announcer mentioned him both to banish the unsettling echoes of an athlete's frustration and to emphasise the Commonwealth Games' capacity to produce moments of greatness.

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