Athletics: The Anniversary - The race of their lives

One of the greatest 1500m duels of all thrilled the world 25 years ago
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IT WAS quite simply the greatest 1500 metres race there had ever been. The final of the Commonwealth Games, 2 February 1974. The temperature at 3pm in Christchurch, New Zealand, was a breathless 90F, but there had been something in the atmosphere that made you cold-sure certain that this would be a special day.

Earlier in the week the 31-year-old Kenyan Ben Jipcho had won the steeplechase and the 5,000m, both in fast times. In 1973 he had been the fastest in the world over 1500m, but in taking on that distance as well, his Commonwealth Games programme seemed excessive.

Among others in the race were Filbert Bayi, the Tanzanian who had been the fastest qualifier; the home country's hope Rod Dixon who was an Olympic bronze medal winner; Mike Boit, another Kenyan who had finished second to John Kipkurgat in the 800m; John Walker, a powerful young New Zealander with lots of potential and more than enough confidence; and Britain's Brendan Foster.

Bayi's impressive speed in qualifying sent conflicting messages. Either he was ready to go even quicker or he could have expended too much energy to be a serious contender. Jipcho had been more cautious, doing just enough to finish fourth in his heat, fuelling predictions that he was saving himself to win his third gold medal.

All of us in the 35,000 crowd at the Queen Elizabeth II Park Stadium anticipated that Bayi would take the lead from the gun. That was the style of the 20-year-old who was fired with an ambition to become the best African middle-distance runner since Kip Keino.

Sure enough, he moved ahead, though at first not as far as many expected. Even so, he was several strides up after 300m, with Jipcho following. Boit and Dixon were trailing in pursuit. After a first lap in 54.4sec Bayi was 10 metres in front. The chances were that he would fade.

Boit began to close in, yet Bayi was not slowing. The crowd began to sense a world record. When Bayi completed the 800m in 1min 51.8sec, that became a serious possibility. Then it seemed that the pace was beginning to eat into his reserves. At the bell he had come down to a more catchable 60sec pace. After 1200m he was visibly slowing but still within a world- record schedule. The chasing bunch willed him to slow further. He began to be drawn back as if by the magnetism of their combined silent pleading.

Dixon, bearded and menacing in the famous all-black, raised patriotic roars as he moved to second place going into the back straight of the final lap. Walker, big, brash and with hair flicking across his shoulders, went with him. Jipcho, fourth, watched them with ominous intensity. Suddenly, he sprinted past the Kiwis. There was a massive gasp of horror and excitement.

Into the final bend and the crowd again rose to their feet. Walker went on to the shoulder of Jipcho and eased past. Dixon followed. None of the three was suffering and striving for mere silver. Walker was three strides behind Bayi in the finishing straight. Bayi turned as if with an "Oh no" glance (though he said afterwards it was only to see whether he was going fast enough) and clawed deep into the dregs of his energy to make a final effort. He met the safety and satisfaction of the tape still with a two- metre lead and made it all look more comfortable than it was. Dixon, however, had looked, and was, exhausted as Jipcho overtook him to win the bronze medal behind Walker.

That last golden surge by Bayi meant he had run the last lap in 55.8sec and taken away Jim Ryun's six-year-old world record by nine-tenths of a second in 3min 32.26sec. Walker also finished within the old record.

The full significance of the race, and the pace set by Bayi, began to emerge as each runner crossed the line. Bayi, obviously, had broken the Tanzanian national record; Walker, the New Zealand one; Jipcho, Kenya's; Graeme Crouch relieved Herb Elliott of the Australian version, and even back in seventh place, Foster, who had earlier won a silver medal in a wonderful 5,000m race against Jipcho, lowered the British record to 3min 37.64sec.

Bayi, who came from a village 7,000ft up on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, leapt and skipped round the track looking like a slight birthday boy. Sadly, politics came in the way of his meeting Walker again in the Montreal Olympics of 1976. African athletes were withdrawn and Walker became Olympic champion.