Until Tanzania’s Filbert Bayi flipped the script in the 1500m Final at the 1974 British Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, going out in the first quarter like everyone before him had closed the last quarter – and setting a world record in the process at 3:32.2 – most championship foot races from 800 meters and above adhered to an old Chinese proverb: tao guang, yang hui – bide your time, build your capabilities.
That strategy, in time, would bring you to the lead and carry you to victory. See Dave Wottle’s 800m gold medal run at the Munich Olympics in 1972 as a prime example.
In championship racing, with heats to run, only the bravest, most confident athletes dared attack from the front in a final. At the ‘74 Commonwealth Games, 20-year-old Bayi was up against New Zealand’s own John Walker, 22, and Rod Dixon, 23, and Kenya’s Ben Jipcho, 30, who had already captured gold in the 3000m steeplechase on January 26th (8:20.67), followed by another in the 5000m on the 29th (13:14.4). Meaning, Jipcho would be competing in his fifth race and third final in Christchurch, a remarkably under-appreciated string of championship racing, on a near par with Czech strong man Emil Zatopek‘s Olympic distance triple in Helsinki 1952, and Finnish grandmaster Lasse Viren‘s Montreal 1976, where he took gold in the 5000 & 10,000m before finishing fifth in his debut marathon.
Knowing he couldn’t kick with the kickers in Christchurch, Bayi planned to blast out from the gun, willing to serve as a de facto rabbit to the rest of the field. It was a strategy he used the year before at the African Games in Lagos, Nigeria to beat Kenyan great, Kip Keino.
Walker, Jipcho, and Dixon closed on the last lap, but not enough to overcome Bayi’s winning margin. Walker’s silver-medal time was also under Jim Ryun’s seven-year-old world record (3:32.52 vs 3:33.1), while Jipcho in third (3:33.16) just missed the old mark. Dixon in fourth (3:33.89) and Graham Crouch of Australia in fifth (3:34.22) produced the fifth and seventh fastest 1,500m times in history to that date. Five national records fell that day. It was called the Greatest 1500-meters in history at the time, and still ranks high on any such list.
A year later in Kingston, Jamaica, Bayi broke Jim Ryun’s eight-year-old mile record by one-tenth of a second, running 3:51 flat. Unfortunately, the African boycott (and the fact that Bayi was sick) at the 1976 Montreal Games, kept us from a second championship battle between him and John Walker, who had broken Bayi’s mile record in Gothenburg, Sweden, in August 1975 running the first sub 3:50 mile in history.
Bayi went on to win the silver medal in the 3000m steeplechase in Moscow, 1980, behind Bronislaw Malinowski of Poland.
In recent years, records have fallen like autumn leaves. But at championship-style races, nobody has shown quite the same racing bravado as Filbert Bayi did in Christchurch on 2 February 1974.
Perhaps one could argue for David Rudisha’s 1:40.91 world record in the 800m at the 2012 London Games, where the Kenyan star split 200m in 23 seconds, and 400 in 49.28. Rabbits? We don’t need no stinking rabbits!
Some believe this bide-one’s-time strategy is also the political philosophy of modern China, but that is another story for another time.
Happy 69th birthday to Filbert Bayi, one of the all-time greats, and a great man at that.