1989 Golden Gala Men’s 1500: Abdi Bile’s World Record Lost

by Jeff Hollobaugh

As the world’s best runners converge upon Europe for the remainder of the Diamond League season, much of the focus will be on records. Especially in the middle distances and beyond, records are forged on the fastest European tracks more through careful orchestration than brute competition. Indeed, if competitive fire was needed to make distance records happen, fans would see far more of them in the Olympic Games. Rather, most distance records happen with a rabbit leading the way, and no medals on the line.

Abdi Bile (bee-lay) seemed always stymied in the chase for Olympic gold and records. The Somalian great certainly had the talent for both. In 1987, he captured the World Championship title in the 1500 with a stunning 1:46.0 final 800. Two years later, he outlegged Sebastian Coe at the World Cup in the British great’s final 1500 race. Yet his Olympic history played out unfortunately. In 1984, as a relative unknown with two years of running behind him, he qualified for the historic Los Angeles Olympics 1500 final against Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram–this despite having fractured his leg at the NCAA meet. However, he was disqualified after Brazilian Agberto Guimaraes failed to finish due to a bumping incident. Then, in 1988, when he should have been near his career peak, he missed the entire season because of injury. In 1992, the injury story all over again. Finally he made it back to the Games in 1996, but by then, he no longer had that killer kick; he finished 6th in the final.

Similarly, his chase for records, even behind the pacing of friendly rabbits, was equally unlucky. After his world title in 1987, he felt stung by some people saying that José-Luis González, the silver medalist, was actually the better runner and would have prevailed if the initial pace had not been so slow. So he aimed for a world record attempt in the 1500 at the Van Damme Memorial in Brussels. “I just wanted to show those people that I could win either way.”

Trouble was, the weather didn’t cooperate. Temperatures were below 60 Fahrenheit (16˚C) at racetime and wet and windy. “That day it was raining, it was cold, it was freezing, and when I got there, I just said, ‘Oh my goodness this is crazy. Maybe you just have to change your mind.’ I thought if I could run 3:40, I would win. ‘That’s all you need!’ And I just said no. I don’t care if it’s raining. I don’t care if it’s freezing. I’m going to go.

“I went to the front. I did and González followed me up to 800, and he just died badly. I mean, I destroyed him.” Bile’s 3:31.80 indeed demolished the field. Jim Spivey of the U.S. salvaged second place more than five seconds back. Steve Scott was even farther behind (3:38.25 in 4th), and González finished 6th in 3:41.60. “That shows you how bad that day was,” says Bile. “But I ran a time that showed that I could run in the cold and the rain and the sun.” But had the weather gods smiled on Bile, that 3:31.80 might indeed have been a world record.

Two years later when he lined up at the Golden Gala 1500, in Pescara, Italy, he still had his eyes on Saïd Aouita’s world record of 3:29.46. Bile’s best was 3:31.71 from two years earlier, but he had just come off a victory in Oslo’s Dream Mile in 3:49.90, a 1:44.68 in the 800 two days later, and then a PR 2:14.51 in the kilometer. He felt ready, very ready.

The Pescara race had been orchestrated for a record. Briton Ikem Billy and another would do the early pacemaking, and Tony Morrell would then take the field to 1200m. It started well: 55.52 at 400, and 1:52.94 at 800. “I was feeling so good, and the pace was just right on,” recalls Bile, who passed those posts at 56.0 and 1:53.6. Then, with more than 400 left in the race, Morrell started slowing. At the same time, Bile wanted to stretch out his long legs and unleash a long kick. He passed the 1100m mark in 2:35.8, and would need a 53.6 finish to get the record, a split that seemed very achievable given his history as a kicker.

“With one lap to go, the pacemaker was slowing down, and I tried to tell him, ‘Get out! Get out! Get out! Move out!’ But he didn’t move out. He stayed there. And I’m trying to pass him from the outside, the inside, push him, saying, ‘Move! Move! Move!’ and he didn’t move. I think he was thinking he just wanted to get to 1200m to get his money.” Bile couldn’t begin his kick because of the obstruction, and his frustration grew throughout the penultimate turn.

That’s when Bile, worried that the record would slip away, decided to get more aggressive. He launched a major drive to get past Morrell as they came off the turn approaching the 1200m mark. But when Morrell hit 1200, he slowed and veered to the outside of the track, putting him on a collision course with the World Champion. Says Bile, “When I tried to pass him on the outside, he tried to move out. So he pushed me, and we ran together all the way to lane eight. I [had to] stop.”

It had all happened quickly–the snafu can be seen in the video (link below), though somewhat obscured by the discus net. Yet it is clear that Bile suddenly found himself out of the race, at a near stop, and out of world record contention. “By the time I ran all the way out to lane eight, the people who were behind me already came and passed me.”

Kenya’s Wilfred Kirochi had gotten well ahead of Bile, with Italy’s Gennaro Di Napoli now running even and New Zealand legend John Walker a step behind. It took 80 meters for Bile to get back into the lead: “I came back again, and I caught the people, and I passed them.” He stormed around the turn and to the finish as the clock ticked away. At the line, he led by nine meters in clocking a PR 3:31.20 ahead of national records for Kirochi and Di Napoli. He missed Aouita’s global standard by 1.74 seconds. His final lap took 55.4, a split that included the bumping out to lane 8 and the loss of his momentum. “Still, I ran 3:31.20, which took a little bit with all the stopping… and chasing people–a very bad race.”

That Pescara race is almost lost to history. Though Bile would run a faster time later in the season–3:30.55–he probably never had a better chance to break the world record than he did in that Italian city by the sea. He would end his season, and his career, without a world record. The reporter from the Italian paper La Stampa recognized something special in the 26-year-old’s performance that day: “Bile always remained close to the leaders, deciding to produce a performance of great historical magnitude. And when he stretched, majestic as ever, in the last 250 meters, he created a vacuum no one could fill.”

Long ago, Bile, now a coach for the United Arab Emirates, made peace with the lost opportunities in his career. “There were always some problems and some confusion, but still I managed to run some good times and still win.”

Watch the race.

   Results (7/19/1989): 1. Abdi Bile (Somalia) 3:31.20 NR; 2. Wilfred Kirochi (Kenya) 3:32.57 NR; 3. Gennaro Di Napoli (Italy) 3:33.33 NR; 4. John Walker (New Zealand) 3:35.96; 5. Alessandro Lambruschini (Italy) 3:37.25; 6. Branko Zorko (Yugoslavia) 3:37.74; 8. Davide Tirelli (Italy) 3:38.29.

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