Athletics: How Byers became the world's most famous runaway rabbit

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The Independent Online

It would be nice to think that Sammy Korir will enjoy lasting recognition for his achievement of last Sunday. Surely you haven't forgotten already? Oh please. Don't say you never committed it to memory.

Sammy Korir. Berlin. Second fastest marathon in history. Okay, let's go again...

The little Kenyan's time was more than half a minute swifter than the previous world best. But unluckily for him, it was also one second slower than the 2hr 4min 55sec achieved on the same day by his lanky compatriot Paul Tergat.

Thus it is Tergat - no stranger to disappointment himself after his epic defeat by Haile Gebrselassie in the last Olympic 10,000 metres final - who takes his place among those who have helped the event evolve, a list that encompasses such illustrious performers as Jim Peters, Abebe Bikila, Derek Clayton, Rob de Castella, Steve Jones, Carlos Lopes and Khalid Khannouchi.

Korir, for all the excellence of his contribution, will remain no more than a historical footnote.

Had he run just a second faster, or had Tergat been delayed a fraction longer by confusion over the location of the finishing line, Korir - who had undertaken to tow his fellow countryman through the early stages - would have established himself in running lore as the most celebrated example of a pacemaker who never moved over.

Given his narrow failure, that distinction remains with Tom Byers, a 1500m runner whose moment of fame happened at the Bislett Stadium in Oslo on 26 June 1981, when he defeated a field that included Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and John Walker.

The American's unlikely triumph occurred after he had been allowed to open up a 70m lead by the start of the final lap. Ovett, the reigning Olympic 800m champion, gave chase, but finished half a second behind the American in what was only his second defeat over the metric mile in four years.

Ovett and the others protested they had been confused by an official who had erroneously supplied them with Byers' split times instead of their own during the early part of the race.

Nearly a decade later, I tracked Byers down - he was working as a corporate risk manager in Ohio - and asked him to recall the evening when he became the world's most famous runaway rabbit.

"At the bell, I looked over my right shoulder and they weren't there," Byers said. "It was eerie. Going down the back straight I heard the fans pounding on the walls and I thought to myself: 'You can win.' It was a total fluke. But you would have thought someone in that pack would have been able to tell what pace they were really running at."

The collective mental slackness exhibited on that night in Norway was sufficient to make Byers' name. "For one day I was a celebrity," he recalled.

A dozen years later, pacemaking in international middle-distance races has become a commonplace - but the chances of anyone repeating Byers' trick on the track have become even more remote.

"There's so much more involved now that it would never happen again," said Anthony Whiteman, the British 1500m runner who has helped pace the world champion, Hicham El Guerrouj, at Zurich, Rieti and Brussels this season.

"The guys at the back in Oslo thought Byers was going mad," Whiteman said. "But you should know if you are running at the right speed yourself. It was their own stupid fault."

The 31-year-old Carshalton athlete's decision to earn something towards his Olympic preparations came in the wake of his failure to earn selection for this year's World Championships.

Whiteman, however, remains ambivalent about the profits he has made from his natural ability to run at specified speeds, pointing out ruefully that he has often received no more than $1,000 to $2,000 for finishing fifth or sixth in races on the circuit, and yet is able to pick up considerably more for events in which he drops out before the end. Once he has hit the required mark in the required time, he is at liberty to take the rest of the evening off. That said, he doesn't have to.

So has Whiteman ever contemplated doing a Byers: going for broke? Well, as it happens, he does have what he describes as a "romantic notion"...

"I think about going out into lane two when Hicham moves up, but then getting back on to his shoulder," Whiteman muses. "It's a fantasy really, like wishing I could have a Ferrari."

The problem is that Whiteman's fantasies have never yet managed to survive harsh experience. "When it comes to a race and I've just gone through 800m in 1min 50sec," he admits, "I don't really want to carry on."

Ah well. There's always next season.