The United Republic of Tanzania (created in 1964 when Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined) is perhaps rightly suspicious of what it calls "cynical Western journalists." A cynical Western journalist, for example, might be tempted to have fun with the name of Tanzania's world-record-holding metric miler, Filbert Bayi, suggesting that Bayi's seven brothers and sisters have names like Pistachio and Macadamia, and that Filbert drinks nothing but cocoa.
Such facile humor would be unkind. Despite its somewhat self-righteous adherence to the sterile polemics of East and West and the Third World, Tanzania emerges as a pretty good country, and as for Filbert Bayi, he is anything but a nut. He is a shy, slim, quiet young army officer of 21 who reflects in both his speed and his sensitivity the best qualities of East African life. He reminds you of one of those wide-eyed, lean-legged antelopes—gazelle, impala, oryx—that spring with such amazing grace across the great game plains of the Serengeti. When Bayi broke Jim Ryun's seven-year-old world record for the 1,500 meters in the Commonwealth Games at Christ-church, New Zealand, he looked back twice during the final lap to see where his archrival, Kenya's Ben Jipcho, was running. The photographs show eyes as poignant as those of a sable antelope with a cheetah closing fast on his tail. "I always look behind to see who's coming," Bayi says, with a smile.
Actually, Bayi got his start in running by playing the predator in his home village of Karatu, near Mount Kilimanjaro. After school he and his pals would run their dogs after hares and gazelles. "The dogs were the speedy ones," he says, "but chasing them taught me endurance. And since the altitude there is in excess of 5,000 feet, this gave me the needed stamina for long-distance running."
He began running formally in 1970. Initially a steeplechaser and 5,000-meter man, he switched to the 1,500 in 1972 and surprised everyone by setting a new Tanzanian record, a modest 3:45.6 that was roughly equivalent to a 4:03 mile. "I knew then that I was on to something big," Bayi says. "I knew I was fit to run in international competition." But at the Munich Olympics he learned a hard lesson. "I discovered that there is a lot of pushing and jostling in the 1,500," he says wryly. "At one point I was actually spiked. I decided that from then on I would run at the front right from the start. Let them catch me if they can." This sometimes self-defeating strategy worked perfectly for Bayi at the All-African games in Lagos, Nigeria, in January 1973. He burst into the lead and wowed fans and foes by defeating the renowned Kip Keino of Kenya in a meet record time of 3:37.2. The aging Keino embraced Bayi after the event and then turned pro.
June 30, 1974
It took Bayi another year to dispose of his other major African challenger, Keino's successor, Jipcho. "Boastful Ben," as he is sometimes called in East Africa, had whipped Bayi twice and the Christchurch race shaped up as a grudge match. New Zealand's John Walker, who had finished ahead of Bayi in the Commonwealth 800 meters, was also in the 1,500. Bayi went out so swiftly—hitting 400 meters at 54.5 and 800 in a searing 1:52 flat—that everyone figured he had to fade. He didn't. He finished in 3:32.2, almost a second under Ryun's record, and he established himself as the new man to beat in the mile and in the 1,500.
In Tanzania, Bayi is now praised in the same breath with President Julius Nyerere and he has been promoted to lieutenant in the Defense Forces. Nominally a "sports and air technical officer," he lives in barracks near the airport outside Dar es Salaam. He runs for two or three hours every morning on the sandy roads of the humid Arabic-flavored coast, past Moslem women shrouded in their gun-metal black bui-buis, past stalls gaudy with papayas, mangoes and fly-wreathed raw meat, past jolly barbers who strop their razors under the banyan trees and cheer him on.
"I run alone," he says. "The African runner does not need a coach. The runner in the high plains, the runner who pursues the dogs who pursue the gazelles, does not need a coach to teach him his pace. I know myself what is bad and what is good. I need nothing fancy, nothing special in my diet—no drugs, no vitamins. I eat rice, fruit, meat and the maize dish we call ugali, just like my military comrades. For amusement I watch football and read the sports magazines. I like the movies—both the Westerns, like John Wayne, and the Easterns, like Enter the Dragon." He almost smiles at the Third World symbolism in the remark.
He grins broadly when asked if he has any special girl friend.
"No," he says, "just girl friends. I would like to keep it plural for a while."
This week Bayi will be in Scandinavia for a series of meets in Finland, Sweden and Norway. He will run everything from the 800 through the 1,500 and the mile to the 3,000-meter steeplechase and the two-mile. Though he says a touch of malaria has put him off top form, he appears in excellent shape. All eyes will be on the stopwatch during his mile attempt in Stockholm on July 1. Jim Ryun's world record of 3:51.1 is obviously his next target.
And if he breaks it, what next? Will he turn pro, like Keino and Jipcho and Ryun himself?
"I cannot even begin to comment on professionalism," he says. He is sitting in the officers' mess under the watchful eyes of a superior. One realizes that Bayi is a soldier, subject to military discipline. And that this is a socialist state.
"As I understand it," he continues, "being a paid runner means you are a slave to someone. You are running for money and not for honor. I want to run for my country."