The 1500-m final at the 1976 Olympic Games was meant to be a confrontation between Walker and Filbert Bayi of Tanzania. Bayi had won gold to Walker’s silver in the event at the 1974 Commonwealth Games, with both men breaking the world record. Both expressed disappointment that they would not be competing against each other after Tanzania withdrew from the Olympics as part of the boycott. There is doubt, however, whether Bayi could have competed, as he was suffering from malaria shortly before the Games.
After focusing his pre-Games training on how to beat Bayi, who always led from the start, Walker instead faced a field full of fast finishers. He and his coach, Arch Jelley, decided to force the pace before the final straight. As the race progressed Walker became concerned that the pace was too slow and that it would come down to a sprint against the ‘sitters and kickers’. Eamonn Coghlan of Ireland gave Walker his opportunity. With about 270 m to go Coghlan took off, leading Walker to the front of the field. Heading into the top bend, the New Zealander surged into the lead.
Walker held on to win gold in a time of 3 minutes 39.17 seconds, 7 seconds slower than Bayi’s Christchurch world record. Ivo van Damme of Belgium (3:39.27) and Paul-Heinz Wellmann of West Germany (3:39.33) were close behind. Coghlan faded to fourth.
Walker’s medal was the first Olympic track gold won by a New Zealander since Peter Snell's 800 m and 1500 m double at Tokyo in 1964. After Montreal, it would take 32 years for New Zealand to claim another medal on the track (although Lorraine Moller won bronze in the women’s marathon in 1992). At Beijing in 2008, Nick Willis surpassed all expectations to claim a thrilling 1500-m bronze against the might of the African runners who now dominate middle-distance events. In 2010 his placing was upgraded to silver after the winner was disqualified for failing a drug test. Willis was presented with his silver medal at Newtown Park in Wellington in February 2011 – the first Olympic medal ceremony to take place in New Zealand.
Image: still from film of John Walker’s gold-medal winning run (YouTube)