In their words: The race that stopped a nation

By Michael Brown

Filbert Bayi to a risk in lead from the front at the start of the 1974 Commonwealth Games 1500m race. Photo / Herald archives
Filbert Bayi to a risk in lead from the front at the start of the 1974 Commonwealth Games 1500m race. Photo / Herald archives


Forty years ago on Sunday at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch


The world witnessed one of the greatest middle distance races of all time.


Some say it was the greatest-contested by one of the best fields for a major competition. This is their story.



The Buildup


The track and field meeting burst into life on the opening day when Dick Tayler won gold for New Zealand in the 10,000m and continued with a series of top performances in the 800m, 5000m, 3000m steeplechase and marathon.

But there was tremendous excitement as the field lined up for the 1500m, a field that included three medallists from the 1972 Olympic Games - Rod Dixon (bronze in 1500m), Ben Jipcho (silver in 3000m steeplechase), Mike Boit (bronze in 800m) - as well as England's Brendan Foster, who won bronze in the 1500m at the 1970 Commonwealth Games, top Australian Graham Crouch and 1980 Olympic 5000m silver medallist Suleiman Nyambui And John Walker and Filbert Bayi.

Keith Quinn (TVNZ commentator)


I wrote a preview for the Listener a couple of weeks out from the Commonwealth Games and said I thought one of the highlights might be the 1500m race between John Walker, Rod Dixon and Filbert Bayi. Some smart sub-editor at the Listener thought there was no way anyone would have a name like Filbert so changed it to Gilbert Bayi. I was furious. Of course, in those days, I knew everything.

Rod Dixon (New Zealand)


At a race in Wales in 1973, John came up alongside me and passed me. I knew then, as the bronze medallist from the last Olympics, I was in trouble. At the trials for the Commonwealth Games, John beat me well and truly. I went back into training but was having some trouble with back pain. I had pinched a nerve and couldn't shake it off, but I went to the Cooks Gardens Mile and beat him. That put me on an even footing with John but I was still very aware of his potential.

John Walker (New Zealand)


My coach said it would be fast. He said to me I would have to break a world record to beat Bayi. I said, 'no way. I can't run that fast'. I had run 3.38 and to improve another five seconds I couldn't comprehend that. Arch reassured me that I would do it and I would break the world record.

Brendan Foster (England)


I had already run the 5000m against Jipcho. We ran the second and third fastest 5000m in history and it was a really close finish - he just beat me on the line - so my preparation was all for that. Because it was the Commonwealth Games and I had run the 1500m in the past - I got a medal in the 1970 Games - it was just like an extra race for me. I was enjoying all the buildup. I already had my medal and had run a really good race.

Dixon


As the Commonwealth Games approached, I hurt my back again. I couldn't come to the opening ceremony and stayed in Nelson to get treatment. I remember John running in the 800m when he got third and I knew with Walker and Bayi we had a 1500 final that was going to be a hell of a race.

Graham Crouch (Australia)


In Stockholm in 1973, Jipcho beat Bayi in a mile race in 3.52. They would both be in Christchurch, so I knew from then on how the race would be run. With Dixon, Foster and Boit all in Munich in 1972, and having been in Canada in 1973 with the emerging Walker, I knew I was preparing for a "hot'' race. I left Europe knowing what I had to prepare for. My training from then on was based around the expectation of Bayi running through 800m in 1.52.

Filbert Bayi (Tanzania)


I preferred to run that way after what happened at the Munich Olympics in 1972 when there was a lot of jostling and pushing. I thought then, 'why not run in front by myself?'

Walker


I had never seen Bayi before. I had heard about him and knew the way he ran but I didn't think he would do that in the final.

Bayi


Going out fast was my style and a new revolution of middle distance running - catch me if you can. I planned for both the heats and finals of the 1500m one week earlier, just after I arrived and got used to the atmosphere of Christchurch. I knew my front running would work due to the training and time trials I did in competition before arriving in New Zealand. There was no doubt about my tactics due to the fact I knew all my opponents.

Ralph King (New Zealand Herald Jan 31)


The top-ranked 1500m runner in the Commonwealth, F Bayi of Tanzania, should also qualify [for the final] but as Walker came from considerably behind to sprint him out of the 800m bronze medal on Tuesday, neither Dixon nor Walker will hold any fears of him.

Quinn


It wasn't always clear Walker was going to be the better of the New Zealanders. After all, Dixon had won bronze at the Munich Olympics two years before in the same event so was highly rated. Walker was seen in 1972 as an 800m man. I think he and Bruce Hunter the All Black should have gone to Munich in the 800m. Both had qualified but the New Zealand Olympic Committee, in their wisdom, took neither.

Arch Jelley (Walker's coach)


I remember the week before [the Commonwealth Games] John had to run a 400m race in preparation for the 800. He ran 49.9, which was very slow for him but he had been lying in the sun all day and by the time he had got to his race he was a bit fatigued. The press wrote him off. I was in Auckland but I thought I should go down right away so I went down and put him over 600m and he did a personal best. I said to him, 'look, boy, you're in great shape, don't worry about your 400'.

Walker


I was in the best shape of my life, probably better shape than I was at the Olympics [in 1976]. But I couldn't see myself getting a medal. I was young and naive. I had only run three 1500s in my life. I classified myself as an 800m runner and I had already got a medal in that. Anything I did in the 1500 was a bonus because the calibre of the field was very strong.

Jelley


The day before [the 1500m final] he came out to my brother's place where we were staying and we had a game a cricket, not that John was a cricketer. The bat was only a foot long and we played for a few hours. John did a lot of bending down. When he work up the next morning he was a bit stiff with all his bending.

Walker


I woke up the next morning so stiff and sore I could hardly walk. I was using muscles I don't normally use. I had to do an extra 20 minutes warmup.

Jelley


He went for a bit of a run. I remember someone yelling out, 'who do you think you are? Are you training for the Olympics?' There was never a truer word.

The Start Line


By the time the competitors lined up for the 1500m final, the last race on the Commonwealth Games programme, there was intense interest in the contest.

Quinn


The event badly needed a race like Dick Tayler's to lift the crowd. We didn't really understand the Commonwealth Games and it took the excitement of Dick Tayler's race to lift interest in track and field. If you look at the back straight on the first day it's empty but after Tayler won - and it was a big colour TV event being the first time we had seen colour TV at a summer sports event in New Zealand - that sparked the interest. By the time the 1500m race came, you couldn't get a seat. It was fantastic.

Foster


Before the race, there was plenty of chatter. We all knew what the guy was going to do and, because it was a the Commonwealth Games, everyone could speak English. 'My god, he's going to go out and he's probably going to out earlier than we think'. My compatriot, John Kirkbride said, `are you going to go with him, it's a stupid way to run a 1500m race? I said, `John, we've got no choice'.

Dixon


Walker had the image of Bjorn Borg with the long hair. He knew this was his moment. He felt the crowd had come to see him. He was strutting his stuff but that was John. We never talked about running for New Zealand. John was running for himself and Rod was running for himself. Being a bit more of a romantic than John, I thought it would be cool to have a one-two for New Zealand like Snell and Davies in Tokyo in 1964 (ed - Davies was third in Tokyo). Obviously I wanted to be first and John second.

Jelley


At that time we didn't know John would even be placed in the race. He was a 3.38 runner and all these guys were 3.34, 3.35 so he was by no means the favourite.

Quinn


David Coleman of the BBC was right behind us. We were very envious because he had a young lad who just looked after him for the Games. We would often see this lad running milkshakes, Coca Cola or pies up the aisle to David Coleman. He was incredibly powerful and had the big reputation, too.

The Gun


Almost immediately, Bayi opened up a sizeable gap on the rest of the field.

Walker


I wasn't going to run with him. I didn't think I could run that fast. Here was me, five seconds slower. I had to sit back. I thought Dixon was the man to get me up there. He was the Olympic bronze medallist and was going to be my savour. I would follow him because I had beaten him a couple of times.

Crouch


My plan was to go with the group, knowing Bayi would be out front. I was comfortable with the pace because all my training for the previous six months had been preparing for it. Jipcho had caught Bayi in Stockholm, so my plan was to stay with the following group.

Dixon


Bayi sprang out and, although he didn't run away from us, he got this incredible gap. Traditionally in the 1500, everyone lazily takes off. If you want to put any distance on anyone, you have to do it in the first 150m. You can catch a lot of guys napping.

Foster


The 1500m up to that point had been steady for three laps and then a sprint. Filbert changed the rules.

Jelley


We thought Bayi would go out fast like he had done in Europe. In every other race he had gone out fast and folded so we thought we would let him go and fight it out with the rest.

Dixon


John and his coach had decided they were going to watch me and follow me. I sensed that.

The First Lap


 The First Lap

Bayi took just 40.6 seconds to reach the finish line for the first time, which was five seconds faster than Jim Ryun had done when setting the world record in 1967, and covered the first 400m in 54.4 seconds. He had a 10m-gap on the rest of the field.

Foster


Unfortunately his first lap was about 54 seconds and I thought there was no way you could run 54 seconds and keep going - certainly I couldn't. The race went on at a furious pace. It was like oxygen debt after 200m and it was a case of hanging on. It was a real test of strength. It was more like a distance race than a 1500m race. The guy was phenomenal.

Walker


I thought I was running pretty smart. He went through in 54 and I went through in 57. I felt good. I felt so good during that race.

Bayi


After the first lap, I knew something was going to happen - winning gold, improving my previous best time over 1500m or even breaking Jim Ryun's world record. It was going according to my plan, [and I] recalled my race with the great 1500m Kenyan athlete Kip Keino when I beat him in Lagos, Nigeria, at the All Africa Games and used the same tactics.

Dixon


I felt that, like the Olympics, if it was hard from the gun I had a better chance. I was a strength runner rather than a speed runner. When Bayi went out I thought, 'this is good'. Once he set his pace and wasn't running away I knew we had the potential to catch him with 600m to go. I felt we would catch him - strength in numbers. He was the hunted and knew it.

Quinn


Our commentary was good. At one stage (co-commentator) John Davies said as a little sidebar, 'there's Filbert Bayi. Back in Tanzania he trains by running through the jungle and sometimes when he runs home from school he gets chased by a tiger'. The TVNZ switchboard in Auckland lit up with people shouting down the phone, `tell that commentator there are no tigers in Africa'.

The Bell


Bayi's third lap of 59.5 seconds was the slowest but he still had a significant lead when the bell signalled the final 400m.

Bayi


At the bell I looked over my shoulder and saw the chasing group closing on me. I then accelerated and widened the gap again but at the same time saving my strength for the last 50 or 100m when Walker, Jipcho, Dixon and others were good.

Dixon


I knew something was going on. We didn't watch a video board like runners today. I could hear the times and I knew we were running fast, which suited me fine. I liked the pace. I thought the pace was great.

Crouch


I was concentrating on the group around me only, and thinking the move is being made to chase him down.

Foster


I thought Bayi was running too well. He was running brilliantly. He was the only one accustomed to going out like that because he had tried it a few times. It hadn't always come off but you knew he was getting stronger and better.

Jelley


I thought it would be difficult (to catch Bayi). It was quite a significant gap. But on every previous occasion Filbert Bayi had folded and everybody had caught him. This was the exception.

Dixon


There was nobody else prepared to go after him. We were coming up with a lap to go and I had to take over. I thought, 'I'm going to run this last 400 as hard as I can. I'm not going to sit around and wait for a sprint. I have to go out'.

Walker


Rod didn't go. That was the problem. I needed someone to go and I would go with them. That was my gameplan. I was a 21-year-old and didn't really know much better. When he didn't move I got frightened.

Bayi


With the training I did prior to the Games, I was confident anyone trying to close the gap over the last 100 or 200m had to be ready for the challenge.

Dixon


I led around the top bend and down the back straight and that was when Jipcho and Walker passed me. Going into the bottom turn I sensed Jipcho was starting to fade and I could see Walker closing on Bayi. I knew I had to keep my speed going.

Walker


I started moving with about 200m to go. I got on the outside of Rod. I was waiting for him to go but he never went. Then I realised [I had to go]. Bayi was still too far in front so I chased him and I ran hard around the bend. Really hard.

Bayi


I looked back several times to see how far the guys were behind. I saw Walker closing the gap. That made me relax and wait for the big sprint.

Dixon


Coming up the home straight, I was picking up a little bit but, as I was becoming a little more desperate because I wasn't catching him, I tried to run faster and as soon as you do that you go into oxygen debt. I was fading and Jipcho came back and claimed third. I was fourth.

Bayi


With 50m to to to the finish I sprinted. I am sure that sprint helped me to break the world record. Thanks to Walker who really pushed me to find last gear.

Walker


I wasted too much energy trying to catch him. By the time I got to the straight, it looked like I was catching him but I wasn't. He was still holding me the whole way. I was tying up at 90m. He never slowed down. He won that race. Not me. He didn't die. If I had got up to him, he might have faltered because there's a big difference when there's pressure on but he never died.

The Finish Line



Bayi crossed the tape in 3.32.2 to set a new world record. Walker was second in 3.32.5, which also broke Ryun's record of 3.33.1, with Jipcho third in 3.33.2. As well as a new world record, five new national records were set. Bayi and Walker immediately embraced, exhausted, but exhilarated.

Quinn


When Bayi crossed the line, we all jumped out of our seats and said, 'world record, 3.32.2'.

Walker


I was absolutely ecstatic, delighted. I said to Filbert, 'you've broken the world record' and he said, 'so have you'. He wanted me to do a victory lap with him and I said, 'no, it's your time, you have broken the world record'. He insisted and I felt a bit embarrassed.

Bayi (This is Your Life)


It really was a surprise [to see Walker second] because I had not heard of him before. I said, 'who is this guy who came behind me?'

Dixon


How is it I can run the fifth fastest time in history and finish fourth in a race?

Foster


When I crossed the time and saw the times I thought, 'wow, look at that'. I knew Filbert had won but I didn't know some of the other results. Nobody could live with Filbert. He was at the limit of human endeavour at that time. In those days we didn't have pacemakers. Filbert was a fantastic pacemaker but he just kept going. He was changing the rules. People only broke world records when they had pacemakers. The pacemaker broke the world record that day. It was a new era in distance running.

Bayi


I was so happy to win the gold, but when I looked at the screen and saw the screen flashing, 'world record' I was even happier. I jumped up and down while going for the victory lap.

Jelley


When John failed to catch Bayi I was a bit disappointed but then I looked at my watch. I'm usually fairly quiet and just concentrate on the race. Instead of being the usual quiet coach, I jumped onto my seat and started yelling out, 'it's a world record, it's a world record'.

King (NZ Herald, February 4)


It was the most glorious metric mile in history.

Crouch


Fellow Australian athlete Randall Markey kept saying, 'I wasn't even in the home straight'. His coach had believed he could win.

Dixon


I stood there in total amazement. I walked off the track and someone called to me, 'loser'. I thought, 'shit, come on, I ran the fifth fastest time in history. I know I finished fourth but was only three steps away from winning. How can I be a loser?' In fourth place you don't get any prizes. I experienced that again in '76. Fourth is not a good place.

The Aftermath

Walker


If I had the race again, I would have beaten him. I would have gone with him. It's pretty arrogant saying it now but it taught me a lot. I proved it by going with him at the Helsinki World Games which was only six months later and beat him by 35m. When he went out in front ... I couldn't do it and nor could anyone else. He dictated the race so he could go fast or slow. There was no pressure on him.

Foster


The great thing was that Jipcho, Walker and Dixon were even able to compete with him. The New Zealand crowd saw what I believe, apart from the first four-minute mile, the most significant mile/1500m race in history. When you look back on it, it is still a wonderful performance by Filbert Bayi. There wasn't a human being living who could have got anywhere near that. That was his moment. Sadly he didn't get a chance in '76 (because of the African boycott of the Olympics). When I see who was behind him - Mike Boit, Walker, Dixon, Jipcho, Graham Crouch - and I was in seventh setting a British record... it was an amazing bunch of athletes and it was the beginning of a new era. In those days athletes didn't come together every couple of weeks for Diamond League events. To be part of such an historic event was absolutely fantastic.

Bayi


I [felt like I changed middle distance running] but I'm not sure if world knows that. Nothing much has been talked about my front-running. Today, in any distance starting from the 800m, pace setters (rabbits) are there to help an individual break a world record and these are the people who are inducted into the Hall of Fame by the IAAF. I have been attending Commonwealth Games since Manchester in 2002. In all these Games, nothing has been mentioned about my unbeaten 1500m Commonwealth record which, for five years (1974-1979) was the world record.

Crouch


It was great to be part of a historic race, but I never wanted to finish fifth.

Bayi


In New Zealand, things were quiet but every citizen in Tanzania went crazy to celebrate my achievement.

Dixon


At the time we realised I needed to be looking at the 5000m because these young guys were showing much more ability over the 1500m than I had.

Walker


I didn't appreciate what we had done at time. It was only afterwards once I started reading the press. We had just run one of the greatest foot races in history at a Commonwealth Games in little, old New Zealand. It was pretty phenomenal. Those Commonwealth Games were special. We will never see another one like it. In those days they were one of the biggest events. We didn't have world champs, you weren't paid.

Dixon


The Commonwealths in those days were huge. It was a world attention grabber. The world stopped. When we went to Europe in '74, people were talking about it everywhere. John loved it and went on to do incredible things. I feel privileged to have been a part of that race.

Bayi


The 1500m race in Christchurch didn't change my life financially compared to these days when an athlete breaks the world record - they always make a fortune. In those days, athletics was fully amateur and receiving money as an award was illegal.

Walker


Before the race, no one knew who I was. After that, everyone knew. It took one race to get noticed. The invitations came from all over Europe. I didn't have to beg, borrow and steal and rely on other athletes to get me into races. I had to turn them down in the end.

Foster


I knew that day when I saw John he was going to be the greatest and he went on to become world record holder and Olympic champion.


  • Filbert Bayi (TAN) - 3:32.16 (WR)

  • John Walker (NZL) - 3.32.52 (NR)

  • Ben Jipcho (KEN) - 3.33.16 (NR)

  • Rod Dixon (NZL) - 3.33.89

  • Graham Crouch (AUS) - 3.34.42 (NR)

  • Mike Boit (KEN) - 3.36.84

  • Brendan Foster (ENG) - 3.37.64 (NR)

  • Suleiman Nyambui (TAN) - 3.39.62

- APNZ

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a2 at 18 Apr 2014 15:34:37 Processing Time: 669ms