Why runners in the men’s Commonwealth Games 1500m final have big shoes to fill

Roger Bannister, Filbert Bayi, and John Walker all made history at the Games

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Why runners in the men’s Commonwealth Games 1500m final have big shoes to fill
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Leave the best till last – it’s never a bad policy. After a week and a half of sensational sport at venues all over Glasgow and beyond, the athletics programme of the 2014 Commonwealth Games closes with ten medal events on Saturday evening. The last individual race of the Games is, fittingly, the men’s 1500m.

In its original, imperial, form the mile provided the most famous race the Games has ever staged in its 84-year history – the head-to- head in Vancouver in 1954 between England’s Roger Bannister and Australia’s John Landy, the only two men at that time to have run a mile inside four minutes.

Touts charged a fortune for tickets, and besides the full house of 35,000 lucky enough to be there, the race drew what was then a world-record broadcast audience for a sporting contest. Bannister won, and both men broke the four-minute barrier again.

In 1974 Bannister was in Christchurch, New Zealand to watch the final of what by then had become the 1500m. The home crowd roared on their great hero, John Walker, who ran faster than the world record time that had been set nearly six years earlier by Jim Ryun of the United States. But even that was not enough to win.

Filbert Bayi, a 20-year-old from Tanzania, went even faster. In perhaps the greatest front-running performance ever seen over 1500m, Bayi led all the way to better Ryun’s record by nearly a second, finishing in 3 minutes 32.16 seconds. “That was the greatest run I have ever seen,” said Bannister.

Brendan Foster broke the UK record and yet he was beaten into seventh place, five and a half seconds behind Bayi. “It was an amazing race – one of the greatest in history,” says Foster, who will be commentating on this year’s final for the BBC. “We knew from the way he was running the year before that he might do it.” Bayi had set a succession of national records and had beaten the great Kenyan, Kip Keino, in 1973.

Bayi, whose parents were cow herders and who had been running long distances from his early childhood, went off right from the start. He stretched 20 metres clear before his rivals had settled into their stride.

Walker moved closer on the third lap and looked set to challenge for the lead in the straight, but as soon as he was within a couple of strides, Bayi zoomed clear again and was never going to be caught.

Sadly, the rematch between Walker and Bayi at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal never materialised because of a boycott by African countries. Walker won the gold, but he would probably have had to settle for silver if Bayi had been there.

In the year after that Christchurch run, Bayi added the mile world record to the 1500m, running 3 minutes and 51 seconds in Jamaica.

After he gave up running – from which he never made any money, as the sport was amateur in the 1970s – Bayi turned to teaching and set up a school whose numbers soon grew from a handful of pupils to more than a thousand. He has also played a senior role in Tanzanian sports administration.

“I changed the way people ran,” Bayi said earlier this year. “Before I broke the record, most athletes ran as a group, waiting for a sprint in the last 200 metres. I changed the whole system, I ran at the front from the start.

“Few people appreciate that, mainly because I didn’t win a gold medal in the Olympic Games. But my Commonwealth Games record has stayed for 40 years.

“I am always at the Commonwealth Games,” Bayi said, “and it is never announced before the 1500m that we have a former world record holder in the stadium.”

Never mind announcing Bayi’s presence to the crowd – he should be up there at the podium, presenting the medals. There is nobody more deserving of that honour than Filbert Bayi, a great hero of the Commonwealth Games.

Brian Oliver is the author of The Commonwealth Games: Extraordinary Stories Behind the Medals, a history of the Commonwealth Games.

The Men’s 1500m Final of the Commonwealth Games is tonight at 7:35pm on BBC1