It was a world-record performance that defied logic, a set of stopwatch numbers that hardly seem real. Yet it stands there, irrefutable: a 3:51 mile run last Saturday night in Kingston, Jamaica by Filbert Bayi of Tanzania. Bayi broke Jim Ryun's 8-year-old world record of 3:51.1—Ryun also held the second-best mark of 3:51.3, and no one else had ever bettered 3:52—and in so doing triumphed over tactics, training, fatigue and the most formidable field of competitors since the Olympics.
Bayi led wire to wire, opening a gaping lead early, then losing nearly all of it, then opening up again to win by 10 yards. He did it despite a 23-hour plane trip from Africa to Jamaica via Rome, London, Montreal and New York, which landed him in Kingston 48 hours before the race. And he did it despite a heavy workout the day before the meet. Halfway through the race Bayi twisted around in a sort of golfer's follow-through for a look back at his opposition, possibly to see what other traditional rules of running he could violate.
For a middle-distance runner of merely superb ability, any of these factors might have been enough to deny victory, let alone a world record. But the 21-year-old Bayi is extraordinary and he turned the Dream Mile, as it was billed, into vivid reality for a crowd of 36,000 in sultry National Stadium.
It was somehow suitable that Bayi's remarkable triumph should occur in the International Freedom Games, an itinerant track meet held in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King and promoted by a Philadelphian named Bert Lancaster, who had previously staged it in such widely separated sites as Philadelphia and Oslo. Lancaster is slightly less organized than a Woodstock seating chart, but somehow, year after year, to the envy of rival promoters, he delivers the athletic goods in quality.
For $7,100 in expense money Lancaster got Bayi, along with two Tanzanian teammates, to come to the Caribbean, and then filled out the field with just about every top miler in the world except New Zealand's John Walker and Kenya's Ben Jipcho, the professional. Running against Bayi were Marty Liquori, the former Villanova star whose best previous mile (3:53.6) had come in the 1973 King Games; Eamonn Coghlan, the young Irishman who is Villanova's current ace; Rick Wohlhuter, the 880-yard world-record holder; Tony Waldrop, the indoor mile world-record holder (3:55); Reggie McAfee, formerly of North Carolina, another sub-four-minute miler; Walter Wilkinson of England; and Sylvan Barrett of Jamaica.
Chances for a scintillating race, possibly a world record, were heightened when nearly everyone but Bayi and Waldrop said he planned to shoot for a fast time. With this tactics-be-damed attitude came speculation about Bayi's celebrated penchant for front-running, which the others assumed would pull them to their best efforts.
Bayi, however, was secretive. "I don't know whether I will lead or not," he said after he arrived in Kingston and immediately went shopping for record albums. "I know they would like me to go ahead, but I don't know yet what tactics I will use. I will try to watch the pace."
"I don't think Bayi is going to go out and take it," Liquori suggested Saturday morning, "but I don't want the pace to go slow. I'd like to play a part in the pace to keep the race from becoming a real turkey. At this point in the season I would rather get a fast time myself, even using the wrong tactics."
"I wouldn't be surprised if Bayi held back a bit at the beginning," agreed Wohlhuter, fresh from a 1:45.5 half mile the week before. "He has the strength to run either from the front or the back. I'm just hoping that everybody doesn't stay behind and that somebody tries to run the thing out."
"I'd prefer to see Bayi take it out," said Coghlan who had run a 3:56.2 two weeks ago. "So far this season, in any race I've run, I've been out there myself in the lead and I haven't been pulled right from the start. So I'd like him to take it out to get the best out of me. This is going to be the toughest and best mile race I've been in."
Waldrop, whose personal best in the mile outdoors is 3:53.2, thought the same but doubted that he'd be a factor. "I guess I always hedge a little bit," he admitted, "but I don't expect to win by any stretch of the imagination. I think I can get in there and run a good race, but not anywhere near my best one. With my condition the way it is now, I've got to watch the race build and see what happens rather than make it happen."
"The worst part about it," Liquori said, "is you're chasing Bayi and on your shoulder you've got Wohlhuter. To run against them, you've got two different strategies. Which one are you going to use? If you use a strategy that's good against Bayi, you might be playing into Wohlhuter's hands. If you use the right strategy against Wohlhuter, you might be helping Bayi. It's almost like the Olympics. You've got to go out and run your type of race and hope you get to the finish line first."
As it turned out, Bayi did indeed take it out, and he might have fallen victim to either Liquori or Coghlan if the two Villanovans had collaborated more successfully. Bayi jumped off with the gun and had a four-yard lead over Wilkinson after 220 yards. He opened this to 10 yards at the second turn and came through the first quarter in 56.9 with Coghlan (58.9) second, about 15 yards back, Liquori (59.2) sixth and Wohlhuter (59.4) seventh in the eight-man field. After a lap and a half Bayi obviously started to wonder what had happened to his pursuers; as he passed the half-mile mark in 1:56.6 he turned around to look. What he saw was Coghlan moving up, with Liquori a few yards behind. Bayi's lead quickly diminished to two yards. With 600 yards to go Coghlan and Liquori challenged for the lead (see cover), but Bayi fought them off with a sudden strong sprint.
"I think Coghlan and I both made a mistake on the third lap," Liquori said later. "Bayi had slowed up noticeably and I yelled at Eamonn to pass him. I think if we had both passed him then, psychologically it would have been good. I think we could have worked it so that it would have been very tough for him to get by us."
But at the three quarters it was still Bayi (2:55.3), Coghlan (2:55.7), Liquori (2:56.2), and all 36,000 spectators going bananas. In the backstretch of the last lap, with 280 yards left, Bayi again fought off Coghlan's challenge. Then Liquori passed his Irish friend and went after Bayi alone. Bayi put on another burst of speed to hold Liquori off through the turn and into the stretch for his 10-yard margin at the tape.
"In that last lap," Liquori said, "I had some tactical problems. I thought both Coghlan and I were going to beat Bayi, but what happened was, we both began trying to pass him at the same time going around the second-to-last turn. I had to get out in the second lane, and when I tried to go by, Eamonn bumped me with an elbow."
Liquori finally got past Coghlan with 220 yards to go but could not catch Bayi. "I had to run the last turn wide and by the time I got to the straightaway, my legs were just dead," he said. Nonetheless, he finished in 3:52.2, his own best time and the fifth-fastest mile ever run, and neither he nor any of the others could feel truly disappointed. They had all shared in the finest mile race of all time. Coghlan's 3:53.3 set a new Irish and European record and ranks 11th on the all-time list. Wohlhuter, fourth in 3:53.8—the precise time he said he would win in a pre-race pool conducted by the sports writers—lowered his lifetime best by more than half a second. "The mile will be the death of me," he said. "I keep running better times and getting lower places." Waldrop was fifth in 3:57.7 and McAfee sixth in 3:59.5.
While the mile stole the loudest thunder, the crowd hardly ignored Steve Williams, who in almost any other meet would have been the sensation of the evening. Living up to his newly printed business card which reads, "Steve Williams, world-wide sprinting" and wearing a T shirt emblazoned "Flash," he ran down Houston McTear in the last three yards of the 100 meters to win in a searing 10 seconds flat, passing the 100-yard mark in 9.1 on two watches and 9.2 on another. In the 200 meters Williams was even better, scorching the Chevron-440 track in 19.9, the third fastest of all time.
"I'm down here for business," Williams said on Friday. "I was down here for my vacation in April. I'm down here for business on this trip."
McTear implied the same, especially after he overheard someone in his hotel expressing skepticism about the world-record-equaling 9-flat 100-yard dash McTear had run the previous weekend in the Florida State High School Championships. "That was the first time I heard that," McTear said in slow-spoken resentment. "I don't know who the dude was who said it, but I know I did it and I know I can do it again."
McTear's plans for a 9.9 in the 100 meters were upset when he was called for a false start. Going off somewhat more cautiously, he finished second to Williams in 10.1. The two will meet again in Modesto this Saturday and in the AAU national championships in June.
As for the milers, they should all get another shot at Bayi this summer in Europe, with the possible exception of Waldrop, a graduate student who works 15 hours a week washing test tubes, bottles and beakers in the pharmacology department of the North Carolina School of Medicine. Bayi had received 60 invitations to compete in Europe this summer even before he set his world record. He says he plans to spend 3½ months in Europe but that the number of times he will run the mile and the 1,500 will be reduced in favor of shorter and longer races—800 meters and 5,000 meters, that sort of thing.
Asked if he planned to continue his front-running style, Bayi said, "This is always the first thing someone asks me. It depends on how I run. It is my own secret. I know what kind of things I have. If I am running fast, I know. And I know when I'm going to be tired."
Asked how he had managed to respond to the challenges of Coghlan and Liquori, he said, "When they came close to me, I bust. I mean I went very fast."
"All in all," said Liquori, "I see what people mean when they talk about running against Bayi. I'm not disappointed. This was the first time I've really trained for a race since this meet two years ago. It makes a difference when you have a goal. I have to admit I was nervous today and that's not as much fun, but sometimes you have to do it."
Coghlan, too, was pleased with his effort. "For the first three quarters," he said, "I felt great, really within myself. The last lap, though, took quite a bit out of me. As soon as I caught Bayi the second time he took off again, and when Marty passed me I lost my confidence a bit. I thought, 'God, he's after going by me so easy.' But it was a great race and I'm really delighted I was part of it. I expected to do this well because yesterday at Villanova, Coach Jumbo Elliott said, 'You're ready for a 3:53,' and I said, 'I think so too.' Jumbo was right, and so was I."
Liquori is looking forward to running against Bayi again, with an eye to lowering the 3:51. "I'd have to say I have a chance at it, after what happened here tonight," he said, "but right now my speed is terrible for the mile. My best 880 is 1:54. If I can get that down to 1:45 at the AAU meet, maybe I'll have a chance to do something."
Then Liquori added, "But the scary part is, I don't know if Bayi was even ready for this race."
Neither Bayi's outdoor races earlier this spring nor his training in Jamaica indicated that he was likely to set a record in his first outdoor mile of 1975. In March he won a 9.5-kilometer cross-country race (about six miles) in 30:18.4, and in April he did 5,000 meters in 13:54. Good times, but nothing sensational. Last Friday he took a few leisurely laps, ran three 600s at a brisk pace, jogged 5,000 meters and then did a mile in a brisk 4:10. "I can't believe he's doing all this," said Wohlhuter. The heavy workout, Bayi explained, was necessary to allay the stiffness from his airplane trip. Obviously, he allayed just fine.
"I wonder what would happen," Coghlan said after the meet, "if he was really pushed."
EVOLUTION OF THE MILE RECORD (since 1895)
Aug. 28, 1895
John Paul Jones
May 27, 1911
May 31, 1913
July 16, 1915
Aug. 23, 1923
Oct. 4, 1931
July 15, 1933
June 16, 1934
Aug. 28, 1937
July 1, 1942
Sept. 4, 1942
July 1, 1943
July 18, 1944
July 17, 1945
May 6, 1954
July 19, 1957
Aug. 6, 1958
Jan. 27, 1962
Nov. 17, 1964
June 9, 1965
July 17, 1966
June 23, 1967
May 17, 1975