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Their race has already been run, countless times, in the Montreal of the imagination. Always it is the same. The Tanzanian, Filbert Bayi, is in front, beautiful and remote, running with a grace and elegance that serves to emphasize the power of the man just behind, in the stalking position. John Walker, tan in the startling black uniform of New Zealand, his shoulder-length hair flying, has on his face an eagerness for this battle joined at last. The pace is unprecedented, 53 seconds for 400 meters, 1:50 for 800, the remnants of the field falling away to struggle for the bronze medal. The time for three laps is 2:48, assuring a new world record for 1,500 meters. Down the last back-stretch Walker challenges and Bayi responds, still potent, as he was in 1974 when he won the Commonwealth Games in 3:32.2, two yards ahead of a less mature Walker, both of them breaking Jim Ryun's 6�-year-old record. Now Walker hangs three yards away as they lean into the turn with 200 meters to go. His outside arm uppercutting furiously, he begins to close in once more. Out of the turn with 100 meters to go they are dead even, the searing formalities completed, ready to discover the best man, the best miler who ever lived.
And then it evaporates, the imagination fading out in a puff of questions: Which man ought to win? Which character will have best survived the myriad stresses leading up to this race, to these final yards? What kind of men are these, accursed and yet blessed with each other at the peak of their careers? To judge such things, the observer must search them out in their faraway countries, must watch them and listen carefully.
Seen from above, perhaps from atop a tourist hotel, the city appears tranquil, its mango and weeping fig trees shading the streets, lateen-rigged canoes and dhows ghosting among the ships of the harbor. But the dust of Dar es Salaam is sour and burns in the chest. Garbage decomposes quickly here; one walks the waterfront through the nearly palpable stench of rotting fish. People drink orange-colored water from dirty glasses proffered by dirty-fingered vendors. Men squat in the dust, the black exhaust of buses rolling over them. It is 92�. The humidity is 90%. The visitor is importuned often, to exchange his dollars on the black market, to buy, to drink, to ride rather than walk. "Indestructible taxi service!" shouts a man in a battered Peugeot. One sees many deformed or crippled children, because Tanzania, one of the world's 25 poorest countries, cannot afford polio vaccine. Recently in Mbeya, near the Zambian border, 25 people died of rabies within four months, yet a campaign against the disease was abandoned, reports the daily paper, "due to a lack of bullets for shooting rabid and stray dogs."
Filbert Bayi, a lieutenant in the army, is living in a small cement bungalow on the grounds of an officer training school on the southern edge of the city. The house has a red-tile roof, a hedge of thorn and lantana. Inside, the walls hold Chinese pennants and photographs of Bayi finishing races. There are large trophies from Italy, England and the U.S. Across the back of a couch is draped a white New Zealand sheepskin. Bayi, wearing only blue nylon shorts, sits on the couch and stares at the floor. He is beaded with sweat, his left shoulder swollen.
"I am better, a little," he says weakly. "Yesterday I couldn't talk and I vomited. Now that the sweating has started, it is good." He holds the small of his back. "Malaria, this is my disease. If the mosquitoes bite me, I always get it. My blood is weak, I know it. This is chronic malaria. If you, a European, caught it, you could die very quickly. But if I or other Tanzanians who have built up an immunity catch it, we are in bed for one or two days. But we have malaria organisms that are dormant. If we catch cold or do something to lose resistance, we will suffer from malaria from time to time. This time it was a reaction to a cholera shot. I used to get it a lot, but not so much now. I take no medicine for it."
Bayi thumbs through some running books brought by the visitor, then returns to bed.
Later, the visitor attempts to run, to test himself in the thick tropical air, doing slow half miles with a promising Tanzanian runner named Emmanuel Ndemandoi. He finishes cross-eyed, nauseous with the heat. Yet as he stumbles into the infield he sees Ndemandoi scurrying to put on his sweat suit. Jogging, the visitor shakes out his arms, letting the wind flow around his dripping body. Feeling a dry touch, he finds himself holding hands with the young African. "Karibu," says Ndemandoi. Welcome.
John Walker stands in knee-deep water, warm little waves breaking over his thighs. He wears shorts and a blue singlet that says ROBINSON BROTHERS APPLE WINE. The previous day he had run a 1:46.6 800 meters in Wellington, on the other end of New Zealand's North Island, and this morning had managed seven miles on the grass in the Auckland Domain, but his Achilles' tendons were sore throughout. Now he has come north of the city to the flat reaches of Long Bay. "The salt water is good for horses' legs," he says. "It's got to be beneficial." He does not wade freely but hunches forward. Beneath his feet are smooth fragments of shell, some pink like scallops. He gazes across the wind-scoured Hauraki Gulf, pointing out some of the headlands and islands that fill the confusing Auckland seascape. "This is living," he says. "If I weren't a runner, I'd be a fisherman." Slowly he walks from the sea, perhaps slightly less bent, and crosses the twisted roots of a grove of old pine trees. On the other side are hundreds of Sunday picnickers. Walker makes his way toward the friends he has driven up with—Ross Pilkington, a housing maintenance contractor and race walker, Mark Kennedy, a journeyman half-miler from Van Nuys, Calif. and Gail Wooten, a hurdler. As he moves through the throng he is recognized, it seems, by everyone. Tan, heavyset men with European accents buffet him with questions about the prospects for the gold medal, the bad luck of not getting Bayi out for a race. Walker is unfailingly patient with these people, but controlled, giving the same answers again and again, saying yes, if his training goes according to plan he has a good chance to win, that he'll certainly try his best, that the public ought not to be too hard on Bayi because it is the Tanzanian government which vetoed his coming. Always the cry follows as he moves on: "Good on you, John. We'll be with you." The observer develops a vague fear for him, that this innocent but constant pressing, forcing him repeatedly to ponder and discuss the imperatives of the race in Montreal, will eventually diminish that moment, remove the spark.
Walker drops to the center of a blanket, within the perimeter of Pilkington, Kennedy and Wooten, and becomes invisible, the crowd passing unaware. He puts his head on his forearms, long hair falling about his face to form a little cave, shutting out the world. Shrimp and canned salmon are passed around, with bread and butter. The shadows lengthen. The wind mounts. Walker curls on the blanket, not wanting to leave, somehow at peace despite the barbecues sizzling around him, an argument in Croatian, red-footed gulls descending raucously upon the bread crusts.
Finally he rises. Wooten, perhaps out of curiosity, touches his heel. Walker reacts sharply, spinning away with a shout. Turning to the frightened girl, he says, "Touch anything else you like, please, but not there." Tying his shoes, he pulls so hard one of the laces snaps.