jueves, 19 de mayo de 2011

John Ngugi and his time

John Ngugi, in action during the last of his 5th World Cross Country 
victories, in  Boston, in the year 1992.
Getty Images   www.iaaf.org 
           African nations are understandanbly upset these days. One of the oldest events in sport, the World Cross Country Championships, which has been held every year since its creation in 1903, with the only break of the world wars, has suddenly become a biannual event.  They say westerners are ashamed of the absolute stranglehold in the discipline by black athletes and this is the main reason for that decision. And they are not totally wrong.  After 31 consecutive team victories by Kenya and Ethiopia in the men's contest, 24 of them by the former nation, with an astonishing 18 winning streak, without any precedent in any sport, European countries have started deserting the event.  Some runners do not have any more interest in crossing the line as the first non-African-born in place 23rd, the old continent audience statistics have also dropped dramatically, because of its representatives failure to face Kenyans and Ethiopians, and sponsorship is being increasingly harder to get.  As incredible as it might sound, last world championship was not broadcasted in Spain by any TV channel, despite being the host country.           
     It is hard to believe now, Cross Country, once in the Olympic Games schedule, used to be immensely popular all over the world.  It started as a British nations contest but gradually more European countries, the United States, Australia… were invited.   World Cross Champs were the only athletics event where every elite runner from the 1500 to the marathon was present, so the race was a truly challenging one, and a gold medal in it was one of the most prestigious rewards an athlete could get in his sportive life.  Ehiopia and Kenya only entered the event in 1981, but they did in style since the very beginning. 

        Great expectations were created in the Madrid’s “Hipódromo de la Zarzuela” venue, because of that debut, especially around the Ethiopian team performance. The East African powerhouse had been back to the Olympic Games, in Moscow, just the year before, and the 10.000 metres riveting match against Finnish athletes, was still fresh.  Among the members of that memorable 1-3-4, Miruts Yifter and Mohamed Kedir were present and so was steeplechase bronze medallist Eshetu Tura.
Their performance in Madrid was going even better than expected: Six Ethiopians were well ahead of the rest of the field with one lap to go, but inexplicably they stopped, as the bell started ringing, thinking they had already finished.  In the middle of the chaos, they resumed running and still managed a first team victory, while Kedir had the guts to challenge until the end American Craig Virgin, who could defend successfully his title.  Yet, the runner-up must have been raging all the year because of that unfortunate race, and did not give Alberto Salazar in Rome-82 any option to follow on his compatriot steps.  A 20-year-old youngster called Bekele Debele obtained a second victory for Ethiopia on Gateshead mud, while Some Muge grabbed the bronze for the first Kenyan individual medal ever.  Between them, Carlos Lopes won the silver. The Portuguese veteran was in his best form ever and no runner could match him, neither in the two following editions of the World Cross Champs, nor in the 1984 Olympic Marathon, which he won at age 37.  Ethiopia had the small consolation of the 4th and 5th team victories.  No one could imagine at that moment Carlos Lopes was going to be the last man born outside of African shores in winning the World Cross Country championships.  26 years have passed since and counting.       

Bekele Debele edges Some Muge, Carlos Lopes (hidden), Antonio Prieto, Alberto Salazar and Robert de Castella
at 1983 World Cross Country Championships, held in Gateshead
http://www.elatleta.com /  http://ourathletes.blogspot.com/
The 1986 edition was to be held in Neuchatel, Switzerland, without the titleholder, Carlos Lopes.  It had been raining copiously and the weather was chilly and windy, and journalists had stated Ethiopians, as pure track specialists were at disadvantage.  On the hilly and mud- covered loop, John Tracey, already a champion in identical conditions some years before, and other European and North American runners were labelled as favourites.  Yet, John Ngugi knew better than any journalist what his real chances were.
            After 3 kilometres of warming up, three Kenyans, Sisa Kirati, Some Muge and John Ngugi went to the front, increasing dramatically the pace.  One of them, the debutant Ngugi kept that brutal outburst and soon was more than 60 metres ahead of the field.  Alberto Cova, who was no less than current Olympic, World and European champion tried to respond, but it was in vain. The Kenyan national champion was gaining more and more distance, with a far from elegant but highly effective style of running. A small group with four more Kenyans, Ethiopians Bekele Debele and Abebe Mekonnen, and United States representative Pat Porter, were following.  Mekonnen, a fifth placer at the Marathon World Cup the year before, took the initiative and started a fierce chase, destroying the group, and eventually making the miracle of catching Ngugi in the last lap. Notwithstanding, the Kenyan was faster in the end and thus obtained the first of his five World Cross Country titles.  Joseph Kiptum (bronze), Paul Kipkoech (5th), Kipsubai Koskei (7th) and Some Muge (8th) finished also in the top-10, almost halving the previous team scoring record for a total of 45 points. (1)  Ethiopia had lost its crown and the world was in awe after that groundbreaking collective demonstration. A legend was born.
       Ngugi displayed similar tactics under similar weather at Warsaw-87 but, this time, his mate Paul Kipkoech went with him until the finish line.  The defending champion won the sprint by a whisker. The same duo again won gold and silver in the next edition of the championships, held in Auckland. In this occasion, eight Kenyans finished among the nine best, splitted up by Abebe Mekonnen’s fifth place.  The team would have beaten the rest of the world combined!

      But the question is: how Kenya had managed to set such overwhelming superiority in the Cross Country discipline in just a couple of years?  
       Of course, Ethiopia had lost ground.  Their weak performance at the inaugural World championships in Athletics in 1983 was the first evidence indicating something was going wrong.  Moscow 3000 steeplechase bronze medallist Eshetu Tura was almost lapped in his heat, while Mohamed Kedir, who owned much of the credit for Yifter’s Olympic gold medal in the 10.000 metres, was a shadow of himself, running throughout the final without conviction, having no answer to Schildhauer’s final kick and eventually fading to 9th, one place ahead of Bekele Debele.  One can wonder how the national team trained for that championship.  Only Kebede Balcha with his silver medal in the marathon could save the honour of his country.
No other big victory was obtained in the next eight years.  However, it does not mean necessarily lack of talent.  Ethiopia had four World Junior Champions in Cross Country during the eighties, besides other medallists, but all of them failed to make an impression as seniors, with the sole exception of Addis Abebe.
            Abebe Mekonnen was the flag bearer of a whole lost generation.  Being no less than the inmortal Abebe Bikila’s nephew, great things were expected from him.  For instance, besides doing well in Cross Country, he triumphed in many prestigious Marathons as Rotterdam, Boston, Beijing, Tokyo or Paris and holds a record Guinness of 32 sub 2:15 timings.  It just means he raced too much.  Like his compatriot, long time marathon record holder Belayneh Dinsamo, he wasted his energy making as much money as possible in the international circuit.  They never prepared properly a major championship and it is better not to remember their performances in them.
            Anyway, most of these athletes missed the chance of taking part in the most important championship of all, the Olympic Games, since Ethiopia boycotted both Los Angeles-84 and Seoul-88.  It does not make too much sense training hard if finally you can not have the opportunity of competing in the Olympics.  This sad boycott can be cited as main reason for Ethiopian athletics decline and lost of identity in the eighties. Internal war, instability, endemic drought and famine, can be blamed too.  It would be needed the arrival of such athletics personalities as Derartu Tulu and Haile Gebrselassie to bring back, with their Olympic victories and charisma, confidence and passion for running to the country.

Henry Rono (r), training with college mate Samson Kimobwa

      Kenya athletics had had to overcome a similar crisis the previous decade.  Its boycott to Montreal-76 and Moscow-80 deprived a whole generation of the chance of chasing their dream in the Olympic Games.  Athletics were languishing in Kenya and in words of John Manners “US College scholarships helped keep track from dying altogether in Kenya” (2)  Fred Hardy from Richmond had pioneered since the sixties, with Kip Keino’s collaboration, the initiative of bringing talented African runners to help American Universities shine in national championships. (3) All the young Kenyan promising runners as Samson Kimobwa, Henry Rono, Mike Musyoki, Sosthenes Bitok or Wilson Waigwa were there to develope their athletics career.  Grassroots work in their homeland had come to nothing and Kenyan athletics authorities were not doing either their ambassadors athletes life easy, owing their passports, trying to control every one of their moves, cashing every earning they had and causing them problems to compete in European meetings. Henry Rono, one of the most gifted distance runners ever, who achieved the unbelievable feat of smashing four world records (3000, 5000, 10.000 metres and steeplechase) in only 81 days, as a young Washington State collegian (4), ended precociously his career victim of alcoholism, altogether alienated.  He had become a moneymaker for agents, promoters and Kenyan authorities and his dream of competing for a medal in the Olympic Games was just unattainable.
      Kenya returned to a major global competition on the track for 1983 Helsinki World Championships.  Its results were not better than Ethiopians: a seventh placement in a final was its highest achievement.  No man was entered in the 10.000 metres event. At that point, African athletes seemed to have become mentally inferior to European or American ones.  Nevertheless, things improved in Los Angeles Olympic Games the following year. Among other high note performances, Julius Korir, brougth back to Kenya the steeplechase gold medal his predecessor in Washington State University, Henry Hono, was unable to fight for.  Anyway, results and image were still a world away from the ones at Mexico and Munich Olympic Games. 

However, it was not at the track but at the Cross Country specialty that a radical change in approach was going to change the face of Kenyan athletics forever.  Two men, Mike Kosgei and John Ngugi were the responsible of this Kenyan revolution which shocked the athletics world and encouraged and inspired all future coaches and runners in the country. (2)
Initially, it was German Walter Abmayr who coached the national team and fostered Kenya’s entrance at 1981 World Championship.  The first results were not bad: two third and two fourth collective places.  In 1985 the IAAF started subsidizing poor countries.  This budget rise allowed Abmayr and his assistant Mike Kosgei a more complex system of regional trials, bringing to the national Championships, and a three weeks training camp at Nyeri.  This time Kenya finished a close second to Ethiopia and Paul Kipkoech grabbed the silver individual medal, after Carlos Lopes.

John Ngugi and Paul Kipkoech at 1987 Warsaw World Cross Champs.
Bob Martin /Getty Images/ All Sport


  After Abmayr’s depart, Kosgei took over and started to work his own way.  Firstly, he moved the camp to Embu, on the Eastern slopes of Mount Kenya, far away from friends, girlfriends and family who used to disturb the concentration in Nyeri. Secondly, he increased the number of workouts from 2 to 3 daily, including both high intensity and high mileage.  This killer preparation meant a radical rupture with tradition in Kenya.  A natural talent like Kip Keino could win an Olympic final with an almost casual training but it was not anymore possible in the eighties, with the huge science of sport advances and with every athlete being a full time professional.  Kosgei found a priceless ally in the rookie John Ngugi, who was also as ambitious as him and a hard-work fanatic.
       Ngugi, a Kikuyu, born in May 1962, who had migrated to the Nandi district as he was 3 years old, decided to join the Army forces in 1984, where he was employed as a mechanic. (5)  Soon he started to build up a solid reputation.  He used to wake up in the night and run for hours with the help of a torch.  Then he would went to sleep and in the morning would join the others for the scheduled training.  (2) Ngugi participated at Los Angeles Olympic Trials and the following year got his first international medal at the Easter and Central African Championships.  After winning both Army and National Championships, he was selected for the training camp in Embu.
      Mike Kosgei brutal workout regime did not seem enough to fit him, because he used to run on his own on a longer path, which was to be known as “the Ngugi route”. After his victory at the 1986 World Cross Champs, other athletes would join him the following year and, by 1988 he was leading the whole team on the “Ngugi route”.  The sensational results in successive championships would have the consequence of spreading the example everywhere in Kenya.  Now, every distance runner started trying Kosgei and Ngugi’s workout methods in order to become the next champion.
        More and more training camps were founded and the work at grassroots level was reinvigorated.  It really helped the newly launched IAAF World Junior Championships, which could serve as starting point for teen careers and at the same time as a showcase, where talents could be scouted by agents and international Universities.  Brother Colm O’Connell chose the first Kenyan team for the inaugural championships in 1986, held in Athens.  Despite saying he has just selected a dozen youngsters he new around, Kenya came back with nine medals.  Some of these teens like 5000 and 10.000 meters champion Peter Chumba would never start a professional career, while others like Wilfred Kirochi and Peter Rono would become celebrated stars.  These championships were also a starting point for African women athletes. Kenyan and Nigerian girls, won three and four medals respectively, the first ones they had collected in a global championship, in 1986, and Derartu Tulu, in the 1990 edition, with her gold medal at 10.000 metres would open the Ethiopian women road to success.
      O’Connell would also pioneer this incorporation of African female to the athletics circuit. The legendary coach, who had come from Ireland to St. Patrick School in Iten as a teacher of geography in 1976, did not have any knowledge of athletics when he started his sportive mission and learned everything from “watching the guys running”.  However his training camp has been for decades one of the most reputed Kenyan factory of champions, maybe because his intuitive teaching never tried to apply westerner contrasted training methods to African mentality. (6)

Lydia Cheromei wins the World Junior Cross Champs at the record age of 13
Gray Mortimore/ Getty Images/ All Sports

         Brother O’Connell first training camp was the Sing'ore summer High School for girls. In a society where the traditional female role is to get married and look out for the children and the house it was hard to assume they could follow a long term athletics career. The first Kenyan women in championships were just young girls, who were never thought to continue running once married.  Yet, O’Connell's protégée Susan Sirma, the first black African woman in winning a major track and field medal, a bronze in the 3000 metres at 1991 World Championships, just one year before Derartu Tulu’s gold medal at Barcelona Olympics, moved to Japan for athletics, far away from family and all the men who could control her life.  She was the admired role model for future star cousins Sally Barsosio and Lornah Kiplagat.  " We sang songs about her.  We would walk around her house.  When I would run after a goat, I would think "run like Susan".  Susan was like a really big thing." (7)  Brother O’Connell also mentored olympians Selina Chirchir, Hellen Kimaiyo and Lydia Cheromei. (8) The latter rose to fame, after winning the World Junior Cross Championships in 1991 at age 13!  After several dropouts and comebacks, Cheromei is still running competitively today as a marathoner.  Since 1991, East African women have only lost once in the senior World Cross Country and are unbeaten in the junior race, which was incorporated to the athletics calendar to their glory in 1989.
         Dedication and hard work were paying off, and Kenya proved to themselves and to the rest of the world they were ready to become the distance powerhouse in Track and Field, with their excellent performance at 1987 Rome World Championships and 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.  Paul Kipkoech started the Kenyan party in Rome in the 10.000 metres, playing his part as announced by coach Kip Keino: “We will take some risks and see what happens” (9).  Kipkoech came past the whole field, to run lap 5 in 60 seconds, then surged away again twice to unsettle the field and eventually went alone in lap 14, running the second half in an incredible 13:24 split, to win for more than 10 seconds.  Always second to Ngugi in Cross Country, he could show in Rome all his greatness.  Sadly, he fell soon victim of malaria and tuberculosis and died in 1995 at age 32.  
            Billy Konchellah also was plagued by several illnesses, all along his career, but in spite it could achieve two world championships victories in 1987 and 1991 in the 800 metres with his majestic and effortless stride.  Douglas Wakiihuri, who had gone on his own initiative to Tokyo to be coached by legendary Kiyoshi Nakamura, closed the games winning the third gold medal for his country in the marathon.  He would also get the silver the following year at the Olympic Games.
            Despite, being Kipkoech and Konchellah absents, Kenya increased its harvest to four golds in Seoul.  Paul Ereng ran as smoothly as Konchellah the 800 metres; Julius Kariuki continued the tradition in the steeplechase, romping home just one tenth of a second shy of Henry Rono’s world record; Peter Rono was the first of a long lineage of Brother Colm O’Connell pupils in winning an Olympic gold medal, in the 1500 metres distance; and finally, John Ngugi could translate his Cross Country hegemony to the track, in the 5000.  In Rome, the race had been too slow for him, and he had been passed by Said Aouita and almost everybody in the last lap.  Mike Kosgei, always a king of strategy, decided the most simple is what best fitted his trainee: “Just sprint throughout” (5).  Obedient, Ngugi surged in the third lap and never stopped, opening a gap nobody could close.  Amazingly, his tactics were not really different to what Romanian Paula Ivan had done in the 1500, after losing the 3000 race.
            Ngugi won his fourth Cross Country title in a row the following year in Stavanger, but injuries slowed him the two following years.  Kenya still kept the team title but Khalid Skah of Morocco won twice the single event, thanks to his powerful ending kick, over Moses Tanui.  Nevertheless, in 1992 the leader was back.  In Boston, the weather was as tough as you can imagine. The scenario seemed like a sign for a man who always had obtained his best triumphs in the hardest conditions. The Kenyans grouped in the front in a narrow point of the course and Ngugi went alone.  Skah never dared to follow him. With crops of snow floating in the air and covering everything, you still could distinguish his familiar long stride and his ferocious look.  It was the last big victory for a man whose contribution to the rising of Kenyan athletics can not be measured.   

Brother Colm O'Connell in his Athletics School in Iten.
John Gichigi/ Getty Images

miércoles, 4 de mayo de 2011

Filbert Bayi, the boldest runner ever

Filbert Bayi, one of the best middle distance runners ever.
Photo: Ed Lacey/ George Herringshaw, May 1975
           Do you remember the first athletic race you happened to watch?  As a child I was fond of every sport broadcasting on the radio or TV: the Netherlands, Brazil and Italy in Argentina’s World Cup, Yugoslavian basket-ball players, Hinault versus Zoetemelk at the Tour de France…  Then there were the Olympic Games, held in Moscow.  I probably swallowed avidly every dish on the menu during that whole month but I only have memories for one runner and one discipline: a black man from Tanzania called Filbert Bayi, overcoming hurdles and fearsome water jumps with ease, always running ahead of the field and dominating the races in spectacular fashion.  This guy’s performance at the heats and semi-final left me astounded and I was craving for the day of the decisive race.  Yet, for reasons I cannot remember I missed that race... forever.  Evening TV news did not really help me: they just said Spanish steeplechasers had finished fourth and fifth; not even the name of the winner…  Who cared about national representatives?  
        We did not have Internet then and the efforts of a young kid for gathering information had modest rewards.  I kept watching athletics but there was no trace of this runner, neither a hint of the results of that final.  Finally, about three years afterwards, the answer was on the ground: a piece of paper, where there was something you do not see anymore in the Spanish sportive media: a thorough yearly analysis about an Athletics discipline: the 3000 meters Steeplechase.  My name’s hero was written down on it.  Filbert Bayi was ranked 8th in the all-time lists, with 8:12.48, which he had achieved at Moscow Olympics, where he had finished… runner-up.  I could not find any logic explanation for this invincible man I once had known defeat.  Anyway, there was no way back: Athletics had become my number one sport, I always wanted to win black African runners and steeplechase is still my favourite event. 
Filbert Bayi wins the 1974 Commonwealth Games in a new world record time
(I am afraid the full race is nowhere to be found).

You may laugh at reading about my winning preferences, but back in 1980, we were not experiencing this sort of Kenyan and Ethiopian overwhelming superiority in middle and long distances we are living today in Athletics.  British, Finnish, Americans, Portuguese or Italians had then as deep a field as African nations could have.  In the time of Filbert Bayi’s international debut at Munich Olympic Games, brother Colm O’Connell had not created yet the first Kenyan training camp, and ugali had not been analyzed by nutritionists, in that craziness around the search of the Kenyan success formula.
Athletics was still an amateur sport and the first African pioneers were mainly moved by their passion for running. The same as triple Olympic champion in the sixties, Peter Snell, said he would have defended in Mexico could he afford it, Bayi stated he had met several other talented local runners as a child but they had no more interest in the sport once they grew up.  But he had!  The future Moscow silver medallist cited Kip Keino as his inspiration.  Abebe Bikila had been the man who started it all, but Keino was and still is the role model and most charismatic athlete ever born in East Africa.  
Black athletes were also moved by race pride. In the United States, the civil rights combat was at its peak and, in Africa, colonialism was being swept out.   http://www.moti-athletics-histo.blogspot.fr/2012/02/black-stand-for-civil-rights-at-mexico.html   Tanzania became a sovereign country in 1960 and Filbert Bayi was maybe its first flag-bearer.  People did not really know this young nation and the runner had often to locate it on the map: “Tanzania is in the South of Kenya”, he used to answer to journalists enquiries.

Henry Rono, Don Quarrie, Nick Akers and Filbert Bayi at 1978 Commonwealth Games
Nor much knowledge existed about those rising athletes circumstances.  Western reports and interviews of that time show a curious blend of intuition, ingenuousness, legend and stereotypes.   Filbert Bayi, who was born in 1953 in Karatu, Arusha, at the foot of Kilimanjaro snowy hills, offers in one of them, without pretending it, hints to anthropologists and biologists about an uninterrupted since the dawn of humanity hunting custom, which brings to genetically acquired tribal endurance: “As a kid, in the company of my dogs, I used to give chase to the gazelles.  You needed to run no more than 16 kilometres until they got tired”. (1) Besides, Bayi pointed out to the hot and humid conditions of the region he grew up, so as he argues it would have been easy for him to run “32 kilometres daily in New York”.  For such natural-grown runner, his training as an elite athlete could not be other than self-coached and intuitive: “In Dar-es-Salaam, the capital, where he had migrated when he was 17 in search of better opportunities, Bayi would pick out and sprint alongside a moving bus and rest when the bus was loading and unloading passengers --some form of interval training. (2)  No wonder, he could not perform comfortably on indoor surface “without pure oxygen and always turning around, with little place to overcome the other runners”. (1)  Specially intriguing is a 1976 Sports Illustrated article which explains how the man with the toughest training in the world was beaten in San Diego by Kiwi Rod Dixon, who, due to nursing a chronic shin injury, had prepared the race "watching TV, playing pinball and going to the zoo with my wife". (3)  Bayi’s uneasiness on indoor tracks arguably would have played a factor in that defeat.

Indeed, the Tanzanian prodigy could only run on his own pace.  Still as a junior at Munich Olympic Games he failed to advance in both 1500 metres and steeplechase, stating he was boxed.  Unable to run into the pack he decided from then on to do it ahead of the field, to avoid been disturbed.  It sounds like David Rudisha, when, after a tactical mistake left him out of 2009 World Championships final, opted for front running, never losing a meeting since, to the date.  However, there is a slight difference: the Kenyan 800 metres record holder, like other historic front runners, establish a strong yet reasonable rhythm in order to control the race, to win it with a last burst of speed in the end. On the other hand, Filbert Bayi used to sprint in the first lap, looking for a 20-30 metres advantage, keeping then a suicidal pace, who nobody dared to follow, and sprinting again each time someone tried to get close to him.  He obviously slowed down in the last stages of the competition, sometimes being caught by some of his opponents, sometimes still achieving a sensational victory.

Filbert Bayi breaks Jim Ryun's world record for the Mile, back in 1975.
Source: http://www.youtube.com/user/milerman

With Bayi's bold and anarchic trademark behaviour on the track, there was never a boring race when he was in.  His first victim was no less than his idol Kip Keino at the 1973 Lagos African Games.  As Bayi was almost an unknown miler, reportedly, some commentators thought the man running ahead was the second Kenyan, working a fast race for his illustrious leader.  Yet, when Keino finally failed to overcome him, they had to discover their mistake.  Trying to know the brand new champion they found out he had further ambitions: “Now I would like to beat the world record and win the Commonwealth Games”. (4) Keino, retired soon afterwards, had a worthy heir.
The brave runner from Arusha would only need one year to reach both targets. On the 2nd February 1974 in Christchurch, New Zealand, the X Commonwealth Games closed with what is widely regarded as the best 1500 meters race ever. In front of a formidable field, Filbert Bayi took the lead from gun to tape, smashing Jim Ryun’s 3:33.1 world record in the process. (5) The 21-year-old winner managed a 20 meters advantage until the beginning of the last lap. Then Ben Jipcho, who had already collected two gold medals in the previous days, unleashed his attack in the homestretch, followed by a still more devastating kick by promising local runner John Walker.  It seemed like the latter was bound to victory but Bayi held off to stop the clock in 3:32.16. (6) In his wake, Walker too improved on the former world record (3:32.52), Jipcho became the 4th fastest runner all-time (3:33.16), Rod Dixon the 5th (3:33.89) and Australian Graham Crouch the 7th (3:34.22).
John Walker congratulates Filbert Bayi, on his victory and World Record
at Christchurch Commonwealth Games

In similar fashion, Bayi broke the other Ryun’s world record, in the Mile, the following year in Kingston by one tenth of a second (3:51.0), though John Walker would improve it only 3 months afterwards. In that race, Filbert was caught by Eamonn Coghlan and Marty Liquory with one lap to go, yet he surged away again in an unbelievable demonstration of power and determination. Despite his strenous front running all over the race, he ended up looking much fresher than all his rivals.
 Bayi’s and Alberto Juantorena’s records in the seventies were the last ones achieved in middle distance events without rabbits help.  We have not seen anymore since then either racers executing this kind of risky strategies.  Filbert Bayi exciting running style and his strokes of genius are still remembered and admired until today, with all sort of enthusiastic praises:  That guy ran like an absolute pimp. Jetting out to a 20m lead and then holding off all challenges over the last 150m. In a championship? Guy should be in the badass hall-of-fame.”(7)
    Sebastian Coe would finish up with these records in 1979 and would finish up with improvisation as well, thanks to methodical pacemaking, by the likes of Billy Konchellah, future 800 metres double world champion.  In that new era of middle distance running, led by the British stars, then by North Africans, every effort, in both training and competition, had to be measured and controlled in the search of the best possible individual performance.  Some ask, what could have got Bayi with rabbits? Perhaps not much, perhaps someone like him would have not felt all right, had someone else done the pacemaking.
Unfortunately, Filbert Bayi could never become an Olympic champion, and the eagerly awaited clash of the titans between him and the first man who produced 100 timings under 4 minutes in the mile never materialized. It was precisely John Walker’s country who provoked the Pan-African boycott to Montreal Olympic Games, playing rugby matches in South Africa in the worst moment of the apartheid. (8) Yet, the Walker had refused several times to run in that country and his relationship with Bayi was excellent.  Both had planned to go to compete to each other countries in the Olympic year but politics, the New Zealander’s Achilles tendon injury and the Tanzanian’s malaria made it impossible.  Anyway, they met in order to chat as good friends in the USA. (3)  In the summer, John Walker would easily become new Olympic champion, while the question about how well would have performed Bayi with his recent sickness will remain forever unanswered. 

Filbert Bayi and Bronislaw Malinowski at the 1980 Steeplechase Olympic final
Photo: George Herringshaw, July 1980

Malaria plagued Bayi for the rest of his athletic career.  In 1978, the 1500 record holder defended his African title but was overtaken in the last metres by David Moorcroft in the Commonwealth final.  Bayi was not older than 27 for the 1980 Moscow Olympics but had lost some of his speed and explosiveness, so he decided to move to the 3000 steeplechase, which he had never worked seriously since his international debut in Munich. Bayi switched events but not strategy.  In the final, the Tanzanian great practiced his characteristical "catch-me-if-you-can", running ahead alone, well under world record schedule until 2000 meters.  Yet the experienced Bronislaw Malinowski, double European champion and silver medallist in Montreal, ran at his own pace, slowly closing the gap, until he overtook Bayi just before the last water jump.  The Polish accelerated unstoppable to the finish line and won the gold medal in an excellent 8:09.72. His rival finished exhausted, narrowly holding the second place, just ahead of Ethiopian Eshetu Tura. (9) Sadly, it was last Malinowski victory before his untimely death in a car accident one year later.   
After Moscow Olympic Games, Filbert Bayi kept running but without special relevance.  As his star was fading, so did Athletics in his country.  During the seventies and eighties, Tanzania had been one of the powerhouses of African distance running, only slightly inferior to Kenya and Ethiopia.  Bayi was its most celebrated athlete, but Suleiman Nyambui won a sensational second silver medal in Moscow at the 5000 metres and kept the world indoor record at that distance for 15 years, besides achieving two astounding victories at Berlin Marathon.  Gidamis Shahanga won back-to-back Commonwealth titles in Marathon and 10.000 metres and finished in a praiseworthy fiftth position in the latter distance at the inaugural 1983 World Championships, held in Helsinki, where Agapius Masong also got a fifth place in the Marathon.  Juma Ikangaa, arguably the best Tanzanian ever in that discipline, crossed the finish line sixth at Los Angeles and 7th at Seoul Olympic Games and triumphed in many classic marathons as Tokyo, Fukuoka, Beijing and New York.  
 Then, while Kenya and Ethiopia started to win everything, producing more and more world class runners and other African nations as Uganda and Eritrea started to rise, Tanzania inexplicably did not follow the same trend but the opposite.  In the last two decades just one-hit-wonders as John Yuda, Samson Ramadhani or Christopher Isengwe.  Moscow’s two silver medals remain the only ones won by Tanzania at the Olympic Games and talented runners like Filbert Bayi seem unlikely to appear again in this country.  Yet, you can only see athletes like Bayi once in a lifetime.

Lost and found: Filbert Bayi's epic race at the 3000m Steeplechase in Moscow Olympics. (Many thanks to Suso ("Kublai") for this video, which I was searching for so long)