Today we welcome legendary runner, Filbert Bayi as we celebrate publication of his autobiography ‘Catch Me If You Can: Revolutionizing My Sport, Breaking World Records and Creating a Legacy for Tanzania’.
Filbert Bayi’s blistering pace energised running in the 1970s, leading to his becoming the first Black man to hold the mile and 1500m world records. He earned the first Olympic medal ever for Tanzania.
But who is the man behind that run and behind ongoing efforts to improve his country?
Q. We were absolutely delighted to link up with your American publishers to launch ‘Catch Me If You Can’ to the world. How does it feel to have your autobiography published? And something that just has to be asked … is it warts and all?
I’m grateful that you will make my book available to people everywhere! When we go through our lives, day by day, it’s easy to forget the impact we have. Writing my story was a chance to relive some great moments in my life—not just world records but also relationships with dear friends and giving back to my country—and also difficult times. Especially since I’ve lost some special people in the past couple years, I know how important it is to make a difference in Tanzania that I can be proud of.
Q. You are in the UK at present – Birmingham, for the Commonwealth games. Indeed, you are something of a guest of honour. That 1974 record-breaking race – described by Roger Bannister as “the greatest race I’ve ever seen” – does it feel like nearly fifty years ago?
Am I really 69 years old!? I’ve gained a few pounds since then! I’ve stayed involved with the Commonwealth Games as an administrator, and I look forward every four years to how friendly the event is. The competition is top quality, but it feels more accessible than an Olympics or World Championships. It was like that in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1974 and it’s like that here in Birmingham. I’m happy to still be remembered—and I hope I still will be if my 1500m Commonwealth record is broken!
Q. Your last competitive race was a while ago now. What have you been doing off of the track?
Lately it’s being a grandfather—and as of this year I’m even a great grandfather! I last raced in 1989, and even though I’ve lost touch with many people I ran against and regained touch with some of them, I’ve always stayed involved in athletics as a coach or administrator. I retired from the Tanzanian Army in 2001 as a major after more than 30 years of service.
Q. You have given so much back to your country, opening the first Filbert Bayi School in 1996. What inspired you to start the schools and foundation?
My beautiful wife, Anna, and I started Filbert Bayi Schools in our garage and now we have two campuses with more than 1,200 students outside of Dar es Salaam, plus the Filbert Bayi Foundation that helps the community with other needs. Anna passed away last year. She is irreplaceable in so many ways, but we are carrying on; our daughter Harriette is even an administrator there. My most important life work now is making sure our students and athletes at the school are cared for with excellent instruction and facilities and opportunities.
Q. Did you always want to run?
I did not think about it when I was a boy herding goats and cows and helping my mom to keep things going. My father died before I was born, so she expected a lot of me. She still does! She still lives in Karatu, where I grew up, which is near the Serengeti and Mt. Kilimanjaro. I liked playing football and games with my friends, and I did well in regional athletics competitions. But it wasn’t until I was accepted to an air transport mechanics program in the army that I took running seriously. They gave me time to train and I enjoyed it. I coached myself and could see how I was getting better, even making it to the 1972 Munich Olympics. Besides, I played goalkeeper, and I found out that men in the army kicked the ball a lot harder than teenagers! I was little and the goalie was not well protected by the referees back then. I still felt in danger of getting spiked on the track, which is what led to my style of running from the front so I could avoid getting hurt. I was fine with giving up football.
Q. We found it quite wonderful to discover the enduring friendships you have with your greatest sporting rivals. Is this unusual do you think?
My friendship with John Walker was very special. We looked so different when we were on the track. He was big and blond and powerful. I was small and dark and ran smooth. We were always connected in people’s minds because of the memorable races we had against each other, especially the 1974 Commonwealth world record in Christchurch. It was hard to communicate back then because my English was not very good and he didn’t speak Swahili. But the respect we had for each other was always very clear. We’ve met over the years at events and race celebrations, including the 50th anniversary gathering of Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile in Oxford in 1994 and a celebration of the mile in Monaco in 2019. I even was a surprise guest at an event honoring him in New Zealand. He had no idea I was coming! I have great respect and love for all my competitors, including John’s good friend Rod Dixon, my countryman Suleiman Nyambui, the outstanding Sebastian Coe and many others. But my relationship with John and his wife Helen is on a whole other level.
Q. And what’s next? … It’s the Commonwealth Games this year – perhaps the 2024 Olympics?
My term as Secretary General of the Tanzanian Olympic Committee will end after the 2024 Paris Olympics. And I certainly plan to attend the 2026 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Australia, even if I am no longer there in an official capacity. The Commonwealth Games are very important to me.
With Anna gone, I have much more responsibility at the school and foundation. She was and is my rock. As I say in the book, I will do everything I can to get an all-weather track at the Filbert Bayi Schools so we can hold bigger events and help Tanzanian athletes be successful internationally. That is my dream before I die.
Thank you so very much for joining us Filbert – it’s an honour.
Catch Me If You Can is out now and available through all good bookstores and online retailers. You can see further information here