Come midsummer and I feel like a migratory bird," says Marty Liquori. "It is time to fly across the ocean to Europe." Liquori is talking in the quiet dining room of a motel on the outskirts of the Italian city of Milan. Outside in the lobby there is bedlam. A raucous strike of hotel, restaurant and airport workers is in progress. Track and field athletes of nations from New Zealand to Finland are bombarding the reception desk—manned by hard-pressed senior management people and their harried wives and daughters—asking desperate questions, such as "How do we get to Athens tomorrow? Do we walk across the Alps?"
Later in the evening the whole polyglot assemblage competes in an ancient stadium in the center of the city before a fervent crowd of 30,000. Liquori wins the 1,500 meters in 3:41.8; John Walker of New Zealand takes the 1,000 meters in 2:17.2, with his countryman Rod Dixon second. The times are respectable but not startling—how can they be after a long day of travel from Sweden and the wearisome effort of finding someplace to eat and sleep amid a plethora of notices that proclaim SCIOPERO—STREIK—GREVE—STRIKE. At least we now know the Italian, German and French words for work stoppage.
This was the European track and field circuit in full chaotic bloom. It started on the first day of summer in a small town nestling among the forests and lakes of central Finland, moved to Helsinki for a meet June 25-26, on to Stockholm June 30-July 1 and then to Milan on July 2 before the company divided, with some athletes traveling southeast to Athens and others northwest to London.
It was a royal progress, a traveling court of princes of the track, but it was a court with an absent king. The king was expected in all these cities, but he had affairs of state to attend—specifically, the celebration of the independence of Mozambique. His name is Filbert Bayi, he rules the mile and the 1,500 meters and he is the principal reason for the presence on the European circuit this summer of Liquori, Walker and Dixon. They all want to run against Bayi, the 22-year-old Tanzanian air force lieutenant who set a world record of 3:32.2 for 1,500 meters in 1974 and who broke Jim Ryun's eight-year-old world record for the mile in Kingston, Jamaica, seven weeks ago (SI, May 26). But that mile race was only a nibble at the record. Ryun's time, set on a cinder track, was 3:51.1; Bayi's, on a modern Tartan track, was 3:51 fiat. "Records in the mile," says Peter Snell, the New Zealander who held the record from 1962 to 1965, "should be broken by a respectable margin. One-tenth of a second is not respectable."
"Besides," says Marty Liquori, "a Tartan track is worth far more than a tenth of a second."
So there was another reason for the three of them to be in Europe—to tilt not only at Bayi but also at the "soft" world record. They waited to run against him at 1,500 meters in the big Olympic stadium in Helsinki, but Bayi was a no-show. It was chilly, the wind blew and Walker won in a good but not sensational 3:36.31. They flew to Stockholm, where the promoters were confident Bayi would appear. Yes, he was still in Mozambique, but an airplane ticket had been reserved there for him and he was expected in Stockholm at any minute. They would present him at a press conference on Sunday. Come Sunday and the embarrassed promoters had to admit they had no idea where Bayi was. Moreover, there was now only one flight left that could get him to the meet on time.
They never did locate him and in their disappointment failed to realize that they still had a star-dusted field for their mile: Liquori, who had finished a strong second (3:52.2) to Bayi in Jamaica; Walker, the second-fastest 1,500-meter man in history (3:32.5, which equates to a sub-3:50 mile); and Dixon, the 1972 Olympic bronze medalist in the 1,500.
All they needed was a pacemaker—but the promoters neglected to start looking for one till Monday afternoon, a few hours before the feature mile. They came up with a stocky young New Zealander named Stuart Melville, unaware that he had already worked out twice that day— a long run in the morning, a sharp speed session in the afternoon. But Melville, scraping his way around Europe, where the prices rise week by week, was not going to turn down the assignment, with its promise of a free hotel room and maybe some assistance with his air fare.
It was a perfect evening for great deeds. The air was still and warm, the crowd knowledgeable and stacked close to the track. The race began, the field jostling on the first tight bend until Melville pushed out of the ruck and set the pace. It did not look fast and was not—60 seconds (59.59 to be precise) for the first lap—yet the stars were not keeping up with the pacemaker.
Liquori was leading the desultory chase but not until after the half mile did he really begin to move. "I couldn't make up my mind whether to sit back and just kick at the finish or stir things up," he said later. He stirred things, whipping past 1,200 meters (approximately three-quarters of a mile) in 2:57.7, and streaking down the backstretch of the last lap with Walker and Dixon giving chase. Liquori still led into the long homestretch, but then Walker, blond hair streaming, changed gear. There was no knee lift, no evident power and drive; Walker just went faster, much faster, and sustained it for a full 10 seconds. He won in 3:52.2, the same time Liquori ran behind Bayi in the world-record mile.