This article is written by Myles Schrag, a freelance writer based in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA. He is working with Ron Davis and Filbert Bayi on their memoirs.
At the time of this writing, Feb 2019, Ron Davis is back in Tanzania.
Bayi – Making a Difference Back Home
While Davis was busy in Africa in the 1980s and ‘90s, Bayi was winding down a singular career that included a thrilling 1500m world record of 3:32.2 at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in what is considered one of the greatest middle-distance races of all time.
Employing his signature strategy of setting a blistering pace and holding on, Bayi staved off a late rush by local hero John Walker of New Zealand on the Christchurch track. Walker went under the previous world mark too, and the top five finishers recorded times in the top seven all-time in the metric mile.
A year later, Bayi broke Jim Ryun’s eight-year-old world record in the mile with a 3:51.0 in Kingston, Jamaica.
In The African Running Revolution, the 1975 seminal book in which western journalists profiled some of the great African runners who were just beginning to take the track world by storm, Tom Sturak tried to describe the young Tanzanian.
“Off the track and on … Filbert Bayi has an elusive character,” Sturak wrote. “He impresses me as being an extremely intelligent, sensitive, complex, and driven young man; but I do not claim to know him.”
Soon after his 1980 Olympic medal, Bayi showed that, like his initial view of Davis, Sturak’s first impression was on the mark. Bayi committed himself in retirement to endeavors both in and out of sport that helped his home country.
With his wife, Anna, the Bayis opened the Filbert Bayi School (filbertbayischools.org) in 1996. Initially offering a nursery and primary-level education in Kimara, 16 kilometers from Dar, a secondary school was added in 2004 in Mkuza-Kibaha, 42 kilometers from the capital. The school has become one of the most highly regarded in the country with a mission to “provide high-quality, accessible and affordable educational opportunity that will promote our children’s development and improve the overall quality of life in multicultural community.” The school’s presence has also made an impact off campus by improving the infrastructure around it.
The school’s vision statement speaks to the emphasis of a holistic education: “Our school will be recognized as an exemplary teaching and learning community that fosters education, culture, sports and leadership growth toward students’ success.”
Bayi’s desire to improve the athletic component at his school led to Davis’ return in summer 2018.
While Bayi and Davis didn’t stay in close contact during those busy decades, they were aware of what the other was doing. Like many of us, advances in technology led to the two reconnecting from long distances.
“We lost each other for some time,” Bayi said. “But we came back to communicate again.”
They saw each other briefly at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin in 2009. Davis was coaching the Nigerian team with another former world-record holder, American sprinter Lee Evans. Davis and Bayi began discussing the possibility there of Davis returning to Tanzania. Bayi continued expanding his school and became more involved with his country’s national Olympic committee.
Davis, back in his home country after the LaGrange project, stayed and coached at several American universities. These included highlights such as Vincent Rono’s 1500m NCAA championship at South Alabama, the first-ever national title for the school, and lowlights, most notably a disheartening return to his alma mater in 2012. Davis left after one contentious season as head track coach.
“The school was not content to merely dismiss Mr. Davis,” wrote Dave Zirin in his Nov. 25, 2013, article in The Nation, titled “San Jose State Learns a Raised Fist is Not a Brand.” “They humiliated him out the door, with written evaluations that mocked his intelligence and his communication abilities, and tried to make this man who had been coaching for over forty years sound like an incompetent.”
“I felt San Jose State was becoming a culture of racism during that time I was there as head track coach,” Davis said earlier this year.
Referring to campus hate crimes that were in the news in 2013, an e-mail Davis wrote to Zirin was quoted in The Nation article:
“As a San Jose State University graduate, hall of fame member, and member of the first “integrated” team to win the NCAA National Cross Country Championship I am appalled that such a deplorable racist attack occurred. I appreciated your article last week on the racist attack at San Jose State last week. It exposed the truth about what has been happening at San Jose State regarding on going social injustice to students and faculty. What they practice and what they convey to the community is a dishonor to the statue of Dr. John Carlos and Dr. Tommie Smith who were advocates of human rights. Why did it take so long for the terrorism and humiliation experienced by the Black student to be reported and acted on by the San Jose State Administration?”
Brothers … reunited
Davis’ visit to Tanzania last year was timely for both men. Tanzania was always a special place for Davis, and he wanted to return to coaching after teaching in North Dakota since he left San Jose State. Bayi was looking to elevate the quality of athletics not just at his school but at the national level. Davis received a respectful welcome as the coach of the Olympian whose name graced their uniforms. Davis spent three months at the school, learning how it is run, and coaching and inspiring the athletes there.
Davis also received media coverage from around Tanzania as well as Mauritius.
After a competition in Kibaha last summer, Davis was quoted in a local newspaper as saying that a long-term athletics plan was needed for the country: “Tanzania has many athletes who can do well at local and international events,” Davis said. “Others can even reach the levels of Bayi and Nyambui. The only problem is that they are not discovered where they are; some were discovered but lost in transit.”
Davis is now in position to greatly influence that plan, as Athletics Tanzania invited him in November to be head coach. In addition to high expectations for Tokyo 2020, Davis and Bayi want to create a national training center that can help situate Tanzania for consistent international success.
They are both thrilled at the events that have led them back to where they first met 40 years ago, and ready to formulate big plans for the future.
For Bayi, he and Davis are not just athlete and mentor, administrator and coach, Tanzanian and American.
“Ron Davis is my friend and my coach, and he’s my brother,” said Bayi during Davis’ visit last summer. “I invited him because I wanted him to come back to Tanzania and see what we are doing. Ron taught me that if you want to do something, you have to have a vision and you have to have a mission. And I think what he was teaching me when I was running is what I am doing now. For him, I think Tanzania is like his home. For me to invite him back is like inviting my brother to be back home and be with us.”
Davis is excited to return to a country he loved—and agrees that Bayi is family. He looks back at a long career and sees instances of resilience and celebration. More than looking back, however, Davis is excited about the future.
“I am anxious to return with the knowledge and experience I have to continue coaching and developing champions at the international level,” he said. “The work is going to be challenging and I am looking forward to it. We are calling the program ‘2020 and Beyond’ because the young athletes I started coaching at the Filbert Bayi School are young and talented.”
Davis’ impact on Tanzania can be as great as before, Bayi said.
“I still need him. He still has the strength to teach, to coach,” he said. “Ron Davis is a hero to me because of the silver medal while he was coaching me. I’ll never forget that. I went through ups and downs with him and we are still friends. We will end up friends. I’m sure someday if we can have coaches like Ron Davis, we might have another medal in Tanzania. Our coaches need to be tough and they have to learn more.”
First impressions, it seems, can last a lifetime.
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