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)

2 comentarios: