Speedster from Tanzania
The legs are off a gazelle; the style is natural and free flowing; the attitude positive and consistent. To most people caught up in track and field that description can fit only one man -- Filbert Bayi, the Tanzanian speedster who runs the mile with the eagerness of a child reaching for a lollipop.
Ever since Bayi became a part of the international scene in 1972 by running his first mile in 3 minutes and 52 seconds, fans have marveled at his ability. If he were a racehorse, he would often be asked to carry as much weight as Spectacular Bid.
Unlike most runners, Filbert does not discuss his sport in terms of physical punishment. To him running is no different than walking. As a child growing up in Africa, he ran eight miles each day to school because there was no other transportation available.
"When you run that much, you don't think of distance in the same way that people in the United States do," Bayi told reporters during the Sunkist Invitational track meet here. "It is something you do every day and it simply becomes a part of your routine. There are, of course, no motorcars to distract you.
"When I run I like to set a balanced pace for myself -- you know, each lap the same," he continued. "Some things about my training have changed. I lift weights now and I didn't used to do things like that. But I still like to get out front quickly in a race because I think it helps my concentration."
Back in 1975 in Jamaica, on a night when one could probably fry eggs on concrete, Bayi ran a 3:50 mile to break Jim Ryun's world mark of 3:51.1. But it lasted only a few months, until New Zealand's John Walker topped it with a time of 3:49.6.
In fact, for a long period Walker and Bayi dominated the mile run as surely as Mantle and Maris once dominated anything to do with home runs.
But now there are plenty of young runners to push Filbert, such as Ireland's Eamonn coghlan, America's Steve Stone, and West Germany's Thomas Wessingage. And often when a great gets pushed hard enough, it results in a record.
Bayi's background is Ernest Hemingway reaching deep into his barrel of adjectives to describe someone who is a member of the Iraqw tribe; whose feet have tamed mountains; and whose people are proud and statuesque. Yet Filbert has also worn the uniform of lieutenant in the Tanzanian Air Force.
Asked about running indoors as opposed to the natural freedom that comes from competing outdoors, Bayi replied:
"For an African, who cannot train indoors, the feel of a congested arena is something he must learn to overcome. Actually it is like living in a house. You can hear everything that people are saying and yelling, where outdoors you cannot hear them at all.
"What is hard for me when I travel are the changes in temperature around the world," he continued. "In Tanzania it is maybe 105 degrees, but when I arrive in Canada it is maybe zero degrees. Then I come to California and it is warm again and perhaps I do not adjust as well as I should."
To watch Bayi ryn is to feast your eyes on a jungle waterfall that makes its own pace, generates its own power, and whose beauty is hidden in the mysteries of its source.
CAn a mere mile runner really be all that? He can if his name is Filbert Bayi.