Filbert Bayi’s front-running 1500m world record at the 1974 Commonwealth Games not only created history, it revolutionised middle-distance running

The 10 other 1500m finalists were on the infield, warm-ups concluded, ready to race. I was in the locker room at the newly-built Queen Elizabeth II Park, Christchurch, New Zealand.

When nature calls…

I had tried to pee several times during the warm-up, but I wasn’t able to go. Not until race officials at the 1974 Commonwealth Games announced final call for my event did I accept that I had no choice but to take care of business before I could get to work on the track. Rushing downstairs to the mezzanine, I knew I didn’t have much time.

There’s always lots of frantic energy before a big race, and athletes either try to harness it or find calm in the midst of it. By myself, with all the noise pulsing in the stadium above me, I was fortunate to have removed myself from it and found stillness.

Just a week before we lined up for the 1500m final, New Zealander Dick Tayler had thrilled the hometown crowd with a win in the 10,000m on the opening night of competition. The victory seemed to electrify the entire meet, especially since it was the first time a summer sports event could be seen on colour TV in New Zealand. 

While Tayler’s win had come in front of some empty seats, here on the last race of the meet, the stadium was packed. It was our turn to close it with a bang.

My bladder was clearly feeling the anxiety, but my brain knew full well how strong my training had been for this moment. Despite a fantastic 1973, I was still not the main guy on people’s radars. Earlier in these Games, I had placed fourth in the 800m, behind two others who were also in the 1500m field: Kenyan Mike Boit had taken silver and New Zealand’s own John Walker had earned bronze.

Walker’s elder countryman, Rod Dixon, had taken third in the 1500m less than two years previously at the Olympics and the crowd would be rooting hard for him as well. 

Ben Jipcho was a silver medallist in the steeplechase in Munich and had been running at a high level for years with the great Kip Keino. In Christchurch he had already won gold in the 5000m and steeplechase, so he was going for a rare treble, while England’s Brendan Foster was a bronze medallist in this event at the 1970 Games. I was a gimmick, that guy who ran from the front and hung on as long as he could.

As I rushed back upstairs (a little lighter and a lot relieved) and saw the open sky, I felt the vibrations of the bleachers give way to cheers filling my ears and the breeze on my face. I was ready for whatever my opponents had in store. My front-running was no gimmick; it was a calculated strategy I was more than prepared to execute.

There was plenty of buzz about whether I would push the pace so hard against the very best
middle-distance runners. That strategy might work in lesser meets, the theory went, where you could wear down the field, but you can’t run away from Jipcho, Dixon, Boit and Walker. I was confident that anyone trying to close the gap over the last 100m or 200m would have a real fight on their hands, though.

Filbert Bayi

I felt like an underdog. Keith Quinn, race commentator for TV New Zealand, had written a preview of the race for a weekly national news magazine called The Listener. An editor changed my name to Gilbert Bayi, reasoning that nobody would have a name like Filbert.

I had no doubt about what I would do. When the gun sounded, I rushed to the front and forced them to chase me. I put some 10 metres between me and the field. My first 300m was 40.6 seconds, five seconds faster than Jim Ryun ran to open his 3:33.1 1500m world record from 1967. 

My first 400m was 54.9 and, after the first lap, I knew something special was happening. I felt sure I would win gold or improve my previous best time over 1500m, maybe even have a shot at Ryun’s record. 

It was all going according to my plan, but none of the others panicked. They stayed in a group, within striking distance, figuring that strength in numbers would carry at least some of them past me.

I extended my lead to about 20m by the 800m mark in 1:52.2. At the bell, I clocked 2:50.8 – faster than I had ever gotten there in my one previous mile and many 1500s.

We didn’t have a giant video board like runners do today, so that’s when I peeked over my shoulder and thought the pack were making up ground. Their presence was no surprise to me, and I had done enough speed training to know I could accelerate some more and still be able to push in the last 200m if I needed to. It was unfolding just as I wanted it to. I had full confidence in my plan and the training I had done to put it into action.

It was interesting later to find out how much the other runners said they actually liked the hot pace. They felt good and thought they were in position to assert themselves when necessary, but this is where the hunters miscalculated. Instead of finding strength in numbers, they had to fight off one another. They had to make space for themselves as they lengthened their strides for the sprint. Most immediately, they had to read each other and determine who was going to make the decision to move. With 400m to go, Dixon did.

Jipcho then led Walker past Dixon on the back straight. When Jipcho slowed, Walker knew time was running short and he overtook on the final curve. I took another quick look back and saw that Walker was gaining on me. Instead of feeling desperate, I actually relaxed my muscles and stayed in continuous rhythm every step – a fluid contrast to my hard-charging opponent.

On the final straight, I looked back again. I did not have a reputation as a strong kicker, but I knew then I would win the race. I set my engine into its final gear. Walker closed to within two steps of me over the last 50m but he could not overtake me.

I broke the tape and looked at the clock. Immediately I grasped what I had done.

My 3:32.2 had broken Ryun’s record and was the equivalent of a 3:49.2 mile, a time that would have shattered the existing world record by almost two seconds. 

I lifted my arms to the sell-out crowd of 25,000 in the brand-new stadium – all of them standing. Walker caught up to congratulate me. We hugged and smiled. With a 3:32.5, he too had broken Ryun’s mark. I took his hand so he could join me on the rest of my lap.

The performances from the other runners were also remarkable. Five new national records were set and five of us – me, Walker, Jipcho, Dixon, and Graham Crouch of Australia – broke the Commonwealth Games record. 

Jipcho held off Dixon for third place in 3:33.2, salvaging bronze to go with his two gold medals at the meet. Dixon’s time of 3:33.9 was the fifth-fastest 1500m in history—but on this day it wasn’t even good enough for a medal.

That’s what pushing the pace will do, and I’ll happily take the credit. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I’ve said many times through the years how I feel like the changes I implemented through this bold strategy have been forgotten. 

People forget how much pacing was frowned upon back then. Remember Jipcho apologising for leading Keino to victory at the 1968 Olympics?

Though pacing was considered unacceptable, it was practiced and occasionally condoned for decades before it became commonplace (and lucrative) in the late 1970s and 1980s.

I regularly chose to be the rabbit most of the time I was in a final in the mid-1970s. There was, however, a big difference between me and the rabbits who within just a few years were getting paid good money to set the pace: I didn’t drop out after three laps; I won.

In the process, I forced elite runners to up their game. Times were lowered, records were broken and expectations were raised. 

» The above is an extract from a new book called Catch Me If You Can: Revolutionizing My Sport, Breaking World Records and Creating a Legacy for Tanzania published by Meyer & Meyer Sport

» This article first appeared in the July issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here