A few hours before the 68th running of the Millrose Games, in a New York hotel lobby spiced with the split times and esoteric distances of indoor track conversation, Brooks Johnson addressed himself to the subject of talent vs. technique. "The great ones," said Johnson, who has developed several national champions as coach of the Sports International Club of Washington, D.C., "always do some things no one else does. But that doesn't matter. The thing is to forget about the violations of form. Form doesn't run fast, talent does. Our problem in this country is that we can't recognize genius unless it follows the old familiar patterns."
Nonetheless, increased public awareness soon may be in order for 21-year-old Filbert Bayi of Tanzania, whose pattern-flouting U.S. debut last Friday night in the Millrose Wanamaker Mile seemed reason enough for keen anticipation along the indoor track circuit the next few weeks. While Bayi's style may break the rules of pace, it also breaks the tape.
As performances go, Bayi's victory before a record crowd of 17,606 in Madison Square Garden was neither the fastest nor the most competitive mile run this season. His performance was more an imitation of his unusual style than an outright example of it. Yet even before the finish, before he had lowered the Mill-rose record to 3:59.3, the audience knew it was witnessing something special. But for a certain hesitancy Bayi displayed in his first-ever tour of the boards, the crowd might have marveled even more at a runner attacking the race, the clock and his competition from the start rather than in a rush at the finish.
Before Bayi exploded to a world-record 3:32.2 in the 1,500 meters at the British Commonwealth Games in New Zealand last year—a time that track statisticians insist is equivalent to a 3:49.2 mile—classic strategy at these classic distances was to run three nearly even quarters, avoiding the lead if possible until the last lap and, ideally, accelerating into a sprint only once. Some fine milers have ignored this ideal in the past—front-runners Gil Dodds and John Landy are notable examples—but few have ever gone out from the gun as quickly as Bayi. His kick begins with the starter's pistol and is stunning. He has run a first half in 1:52, and if that isn't suicidal enough, how about a 52-second leadoff quarter?
Along with his daring sense of pace, Bayi has impressive stamina. He spent a good part of his boyhood chasing his dog Simba as the dog in turn chased gazelles over the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro in his native Tanzania, and he apparently never learned you are supposed to get tired running fast over a long distance. Or that it is wiser to conserve energy in a race than go all out from the start.
The only track traumas of his career have occurred when he tried to compete like one of his more conventional opponents. As a 19-year-old in the 1972 Olympics he was jostled, elbowed and spiked in a 1,500-meter heat. That, he says, persuaded him to run in front of the pack rather than with it. Yet last July, on a tour of Europe, Bayi inexplicably took the advice of some Swedish journalists and opted for "form" by running with the ruck in a 1,500-meter race in Oslo. He was spiked and his European tour was finished all too soon.
Even so, Bayi was not at all certain last Friday afternoon that those lessons could be applied to his first indoor meet, which he approached like a man eating his first oyster. Tactics on the tightly turned track seemed less important to him than the problem of breathing. "The track is all right," he said after a brief warmup, "but I don't know how will be the indoor air."
That night in the Garden, whose aura is equal parts sweat, analgesic, tobacco smoke and mustard, he said, "The atmosphere will be some difference. It seems to me to be very hot. I don't know how I will run. It is my first time indoors and I can't guess at it. After my first quarter I will see how my pace is." Bayi's English has a near-Calypso lilt. His native tongue is Kiiraqw, a tribal language of Arabic origin, and he is also fluent in Swahili.
The field he was to face lost some luster during the week when Tony Waldrop, who a year ago set an indoor world record of 3:55 in the mile, announced his withdrawal from the rest of the indoor season because of flu and other minor miseries. Marty Liquori, who ran a 3:57.7 a few weeks ago and figured to give Bayi his strongest challenge, had a throbbing wisdom tooth that had been infected for 10 days.
As it was, Bayi's best competition came from two lesser-known milers. For the first 2½ laps the race was led by 19-year-old Tom Byers of Ohio State. Bayi, running cautiously for him, took over the lead after 400 yards, with Brigham Young's Paul Cummings, the NCAA champion, now a stride behind. That is the way it stayed through a 58.3 first quarter, a 1:59.1 half and a 3:00.2 split at three quarters. The pace was slowing—it had not been sensationally fast in any case—and it seemed more than possible that Cummings might outsprint Bayi to the tape. When the twosome was joined by Wilson Waigwa, the Texas-El Paso Kenyan, the feeling grew that Bayi might lose. The rest of the pack, including the fading Byers and a heavy-footed Liquori, trailed by 15 yards.
Cummings made a bid for the lead with 240 yards left, but Bayi held him off with moderate, but lethal, acceleration. Cummings tried it again at the gun lap, with a similar lack of success. Bayi merely ran a little faster, and held on to win by three yards. Cummings was second in a good 3:59.6, Waigwa third in 4:00.2. Liquori was an aching fourth in 4:07.8.
"I felt all right," Bayi said. "My goal was to make four or four-O-two or something like that. I'm happy with my time."
During a postrace interview it was discovered that Bayi thought Cummings was Liquori. He had expected his challenge to come from Liquori and he had credited Cummings' moves to Marty. Maybe all Americans look alike.
"Hey, I don't know him," Bayi said with a laugh. "I just look quickly behind me and then I go ahead."
Despite his good performance, Cummings was disappointed he had not won. Asked if he had made his move too soon, he said, "No, if anything it was too late. I think I should have made it earlier. A little earlier and a little harder, just to go past him when he didn't expect it. That's half of it, you know, to get by him."
Liquori said, "I kept a little hope for the first half mile, but when I heard I was only 2:03 and I felt like it was 1:59, I knew I was in trouble.
"It should be easier to beat him indoors," Liquori added. "Outdoors he's much harder to catch. I want to run against him this summer in Europe, where it counts." Unfortunately, summer may be the earliest rematch between these two milers, with the possible exception of the AAU Championships in New York on Feb. 28. Bayi is scheduled to run the mile in the Los Angeles Times meet this Friday, in San Diego on Feb. 15 and twice more in New York before returning to Africa. Liquori is committed to other competitions.
But one superior runner who will face Bayi is Rick Wohlhuter, the half-mile world-record holder. Wohlhuter has been undefeated in 26 races at various distances, indoors and out, for more than a year and has run a 3:57.7 mile (though on a 220-yard track). He will challenge Bayi in San Diego.
After the Millrose Games, where he won the half-mile in 1:51, Wohlhuter said, "I really wasn't that impressed. I think I can take him in San Diego. I don't think Cummings has a tremendous kick and that's why he didn't do it. He's got to push it over a longer distance, whereas I think I could strike quick and get him. I might have to wait until the last five yards to do it, but so be it."
Bayi broke one other record by becoming the first visiting trackman in memory to say he actually liked his stay in New York. "At home in Dar es Salaam," he said, "when you run five miles you sweat. When you sweat, you lose minerals and salt. But in New York you can run 15 miles without sweating.
"I coach myself," he added. "We don't have personal coaches. I have never had a personal coach. I think it is better. I know what I am doing."
The great ones usually do.