Linford

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Linford Christie is the greatest athlete this country has produced - his achievement in winning the 100 metres gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 would be enough to guarantee him his place in history. But that is not the sum of his significance. He is a figure of our times, an angry man: angry about the media, angry about the authorities that seek to control his career, and angry about a society which does not give him, and fellow blacks, enough respect. In his autobiography, To Be Honest With You, he tells, as never before, the experiences that made him. In tomorrow's Independent on Sunday and in Monday's Independent, we publish further exclusive extracts. In these pages he begins his story

Unity was everything. My mum and dad moved to England very early in my life and I lived in Kingston, Jamaica, with my grandmother (my dad's mother), my two elder sisters, my uncle, his girlfriend and my three cousins. We did everything as one. There was discipline and yet, at the same time, everything was quite relaxed.

My grandmother gave orders to my cousin because he was the eldest. It was his duty to dish out the chores all the way down. I may have been the youngest but I still had to do my bit and muck in. For example, water came from a communal pipe near our house and we had a big barrel which had to be filled each morning before we went to school. Everyone had a container according to their size. I had a tiny bucket and, by the time I got home, there was no water left in it. But that didn't matter. The act of fetching the water every morning was part of the teaming process and the acceptance of a sense of responsibility.

Discipline such as that would play a significant role in my athletics because the most important part of being an athlete, or partaking in any sport, come to that - is the discipline. If you haven't got it, then you're not going to be able to do the work. It's as simple as that.

We lived right in Kingston and I remember it as a very happy place. Everyone knew each other. From a child's point of view, it was almost as if everyone was related to you. If you were doing something wrong while walking down the road, then anybody who saw you - and I mean just about anybody - would be liable to give you a good smack and send you home. Then you would be scared of telling anyone in the house because the next question would be "Why did they do that? It must have been because you were rude or naughty." And then you would get a second smack.

I loved my granny so much. As far as I was concerned, she was the greatest. Even though my parents were not there, it was a typical grandmother-grandchild relationship in that I could do no wrong. If I was about to get a smack from someone else, I'd scream "Grannyyyy!" and run to her side. She was tough but fair and called me "Linford". In fact, rather than shortening my name, she would sometimes call me anything which came into her head. But you always knew exactly who she wanted.

Granny played a big part in making sure, by the time I was four and ready to go to school, that I could read and write and recite my times tables to 12. That was compulsory and typical of any Jamaican child. You would have received a good smacking if you did not pay attention and learn. It was important to reach that level by the time you went to school. In Jamaica, if you failed to learn, it wasn't because you didn't want to. It was because you couldn't. Liberal use of the cane at school made sure of that. In maths, you were allowed one wrong answer. Any more than that and it was the cane. We learned by repetition - repeat and memorise, repeat and memorise. Each day, we had to take turns at the front of the class. We had to learn a different verse of the Bible every day which we would recite when we got to school.

Despite all that, I really did enjoy my two or three years of school in Jamaica. If you weren't well behaved you would be punished twice; once at school and, when the teacher told your parent or guardian, there would be another dose at home. "What did you do to make you teacher cane you?" they would ask. Then they would say: "You're embarrassing us because we send you to school with a good background and discipline at home, and you've let us down." And it would be smack, smack, smack - again!

Family honour was a very, very strong thing. We stuck together. If you messed with me, you messed with my whole family. I think that attitude played its part when I eventually became captain of the British athletics team. When I make a noise it is for the whole team and not just for myself.

From what I've been told, my father came to England a few months after I was born on 2 April, 1960; my mother, when I was two years old. She wanted to take me with her but my grandmother would not allow it. It was commonplace in those days to have grandmother look after the kids.

I was told my parents, James and Mabel, went to England to make provision for us. The popular conception was that the pavements were paved with gold. I didn't know what gold was but I had this mental image of wonderful, shining streets. When I arrived in September 1967, the sense of anti-climax for a seven year old can be imagined. It was - uuugh!

My parents lived in west London but my cousins, when they arrived a couple of months later, went off to live with their parents, who had settled in Nottingham. The trouble is my grandmother went to Nottingham as well. I don't think she ever got over that until the day she died. It was very hard for both of us but I think you learn not to show it. It was very, very difficult and I missed her terribly. As a result I was a little bit withdrawn from my parents. To me it was like living with two total strangers and I had to get used to them again, gain their trust. I trusted my grandmother implicitly and I had to transfer that trust to my parents. I don't think you get over something like that. I know my parents did what they did for the best but I found myself wishing they had either brought me over with them in the first place when I was very young or that they had left me in Jamaica.

When granny died many years later, I was devastated. I remember, when I was young, saying my prayers at night and asking God to take years off my life and add them to granny's. I wanted her to live forever. I don't think it's possible to love anyone in the way I felt about my granny; the next stage must be a kind of obsessive love. There was a very special bond between us; she was the person who shaped and moulded me.

Her mother was born into slavery and I suppose it was inevitable that granny should become a cook. But, as far as her family was concerned, she was everything; doctor, dentist, wise counsel, friend and storyteller. She had cures for everything, she knew it all. I confided in granny, telling her things I would not have told anyone else because I knew that, with granny, it would go no further. My mum and dad always said they would never hide anything from each other. That's fine - but I wouldn't tell them everything as a result.

We lived in Loftus Road, a few doors away from the Queens Park Rangers football ground, and the house had no garden at all. There was my mother and father and six children sharing a two-roomed flat in an old terraced house. That was hard. People look at how things are for me now, at what I have achieved, but I don't think they realise just how difficult things were in the early days.

My dad and my mum both went out to work. They were not earning very much and yet they had to pay the rent and feed their children. There were three rooms on the top floor and we had the two biggest ones, the third was occupied by someone else. We shared a bathroom with other families and the cooker was by our front door, out on the landing. I really don't remember much about the house except that there was a red front door and lots of stairs. But I do remember that those were the days of tying the front door key around your neck, days when you came home from school and let yourself in. They were rough times. It is true that they played a large part in building my character. But, to be honest, they were days I would much rather forget.

The fact that I was a black kid meant nothing to me. I never knew the difference between being black or anything else until I went to school which, ironically, backed on to the old White City athletics track. Children can be so vicious. A group of them were messing around, chasing one another, when I decided to join in. I caught this girl and she said I couldn't play. When I asked why not, she replied, "My mummy said I shouldn't play with blackies."

I thought, "I'm black!" I was only about eight years old but to this day, I can still hear her voice and remember exactly what she said.

Children tell the truth and the white kids picked up these things from their parents, as was evident when that girl claimed "My mummy said..." My parents must have known this moment was going to occur but they didn't tell me how to prepare for it. I suppose they felt the best thing was to let me find out for myself and work out a way of handling it. I had to grow up very quickly. It helped being smart - which I think I was - because I adapted quite easily and it never really bothered me after that.

Because the school was predominately white, my friends were white and there was no problem with that. It stayed that way, going to each other's homes after school and so on, even when more and more black kids came to the school. Kids were kids; as far as we were concerned, it didn't matter about colour. It was only the influence of the adults which would decide otherwise.

The most difficult thing to come to terms with in the English schools was the lack of discipline and respect. I found that really hard to deal with. In Jamaica, when a teacher asked a question, you had to raise your hand and then stand up if you were asked to answer. We would never dream of just sitting there. Standing up showed respect for the teacher. Naturally, I followed that rule when I came to England. I was very keen and eventually the teachers became fed up with me. At first they would say "Give someone else a chance to answer." Then it became "Shut up Christie!" The other kids would pick up on that and call me a "brainbox" or whatever. After a while, I drifted to the back of the class and began to shy away.

I also couldn't believe it when the kids start arguing with the teacher. I could never do that. I had been taught to say "Yes, Sir" or "No, Miss" and use the teacher's name. And if you dared to argue... just don't think about it, that's all.

I really enjoyed soccer. It was only a matter of a year or two after joining school - it seemed longer than that at the time - that I was playing football in the playground. I must have been running about with my usual enthusiasm when a teacher, Mr Wright, came along and said "You look nippy. I'd like you to try out for the school athletics team". I was game for anything. But I obviously had no idea about the long-term consequences of that moment in the playground of Canberra Primary School in White City.

When I left school, I went to work for Visionhire. Because I was an apprentice, they gave me nothing of interest to do. The attitude was, "Sit down, watch TV, get out of the way." I could tell you how many squares there were on the test card - but very little else - I was bored; my heart wasn't in it. After about four weeks, I left and found a job at the Co-op, doing accounts. I enjoyed accounts, even though I thought the store manager was a right bastard. He was a young guy and in my view he treated people like scum.

The only other drawback was having to work on Saturdays; it interfered with my budding career as a runner! One schoolteacher, Mr Jones, had reckoned that I was pretty good at athletics. He was keen that I should not waste my talent and he took me to West London Stadium, where I joined London Irish. Athletics put enjoyment into my life and much of that came from being a member of London Irish. They were a breakaway club, very receptive and largely set up for Irish people. The Irish make great distance runners but, as sprinters, they don't have it! I had no problems joining in except that, they made me run in the B string. The guy who ran in the A string was a lot slower - but he was Irish.

I hardly bothered with training, but I enjoyed the races. My trouble was, they were usually on Saturdays and, of course, I had to work. Working as such didn't bother me; I needed to work to support myself and I think the fact that I had worked helped when I turned to athletics full time. A lot of the athletes today have never had a job, so they don't know what it's like. When they finish with athletics, what are they going to do? They have no work experience. Having a job prepares you for athletics because training is working. It's discipline.

After a couple of years, I became chief cashier at the Co-op Wandsworth branch, in charge of all the accounts departments. I liked figure work, not that I had particularly enjoyed maths at school. I knew I had to work, so I just got on with it and found I was pretty good. I was earning pounds 19 per week, which meant I brought home between pounds 16 and pounds 17, after tax. I thought I was made! Dad made me pay rent. He said I had to learn how to my budget for myself. As a teenager, I was convinced he was being greedy; I thought that he hated me. Of course, I was going through a learning process which worked because I think I handle my finances efficiently today.

Eventually I left the Co-op and went to work in the tax office. After leaving the Civil Service, I had gone back to college, mainly as a way of giving myself something to do. I was supposed to be studying sociology and English, but I didn't learn much, certainly not enough to pass exams. The most significant event at college was the day when I saw this girl walk across the common room. I took one look and thought, "Damn! This is me!"

But she didn't like me. I did everything I could and got nowhere. I was completely smitten. To me, she was the prettiest girl in the whole college and I was not going to let her go. Her name was Mandy Miller but I used to call her Princess because she was so beautiful. I've got this knack; I seem to be able to do things and get away with it. I always mess around without being too serious; it's hard to get fed up with me. I wasn't coming on heavy with Mandy. On the contrary, I would make her laugh because she was so quiet. Eventually - I think it took a couple of months - she saw sense! We got together and I just couldn't keep away from her. Everything else went down the drain. But I have no regrets, none whatsoever, because we're still together to this day.

The most important thing in athletics is that if your home life is going well, it will be reflected in your running. It's like an electrical circuit. If one of the connections in that circuit is gone, then the power isn't going to surge through. Fortunately for me the circuit was very strong and I have Mandy to thank for that. I can remember the times when I have had problems, Mandy was always there. I wouldn't go as far as to say I owe Mandy, because neither of us look on it that way. We were no different from any other couple struggling to get started and I would hate to see the relationship being described as one owing the other. But I would have no hesitation in saying Mandy has been wonderful.

Mandy is pretty smart; she has always managed to find good jobs. She worked as a receptionist with an optician. Then she had a similar job with a marketing company before working for United Distillers. The last job Mandy had was with a pharmaceutical company. She does not work now because I prefer that she doesn't. Mandy is young and she should not need to go out and work if I am in a position to keep her. She takes care of the fan club and, as with everything else, she makes a very good job of it. But so long as I can take care of her, then I see no reason for Mandy having to go through the daily grind in an office. If the worst comes to the worst, she can find employment until she is 60, so why rush into work?

Mandy and I value the little time we have together. I don't want to give the wrong impression because I have no problem with being a public figure and, if it's not a vain thing to say, one of the best-known sportspeople in the country. When Carl Lewis came to Gateshead, he had bodyguards and escorts. I couldn't understand that. I don't want people to keep me away from the public, I feel I am a part of them.

I don't like the expression "role model" but there is no doubt that the kids look up to us, more so than ever now that there is so much leisure time available. We have to give them all the encouragement and support to do well in everything and teach them that it is always possible to achieve if you work at it. We can, because they are the next generation. It is part of the responsibility we take on.

I think kids are a gift. I have three children outside my relationship with Mandy. I see the eldest quite often but not the other two, because that is the way my relationship with their mother worked out. Kids are not stupid. The last thing I wanted was to have them worry because their mum and dad were squabbling and bickering. There is no point in telling them not to fight when, as parents, we do exactly that. When the kids get older and are capable of fully understanding why their parents are not together, I will tell them everything.

During the World Championships at Gothenburg earlier this year, a story broke alleging that I had neglected my kids. The truth was that Yvonne Oliver, the mother of the twins, Liam and Korel, had wanted more money. So we agreed that a solicitor should draw up a contract stipulating that I would pay her an amount each year. She did her sums, claimed for private school fees and mortgage repayments and reached a figure, which I pay annually. What she does with the sum is up to her, but the kids do not go to private school and she has not bought a house. It is not the sort of thing that I would want to see brought out in public because that is Yvonne's business. But suddenly, all of the details were in the press.

The papers made a big deal about the fact that a DNA test had been taken in order to prove that I was the father of the twins. We had gone our separate ways before then and, naturally, I was suspicious of any such claim about fatherhood until a test proved otherwise.

I pay a considerable sum each year. I don't mind that so long as the kids are being looked after. But because she was claiming social security, I was, to use her words in the papers, "a tight-fisted bastard". She is quite bitter and it seems to me that all of this was making the story more attractive to the press. When I started legal action, Yvonne claimed not to have said any of these things.

Judith Osborne, Merric's mother, was also quoted in the newspapers, but she told me that she didn't say anything to the press about her situation and whether or not she is on social security. If that's true, then the newspaper went ahead and made up the story. They jumped on it. Yet I don't think I'm the only person to have children without being married...

The papers also took the opportunity to use bits of an interview I had given to a magazine a few years before. I had made the point that the authorities chased fathers all the time and, I agree that, in some cases, that is necessary. But it takes two to tango. If a woman is willing to sleep with a man, then it is a fifty-fifty thing. If the woman says she wants the child and the father says he doesn't, what happens then? What if the couple have split up? Most men can have kids, but not every man can play the role of a father.

I found it upsetting that the newspapers should single out bits of the story and take the view that I was not interested at all in children. Of course, all of this had been promoted by the news that I had become a grandfather.

An anonymous caller had been in touch with the newspapers and told them that Linford Christie's son had become a father at the age of 16. Judith told me and, when she did, I was annoyed. I wanted to know why Merric had not taken precautions. It wasn't as if I hadn't talked to him about it.

Ours has never been a father-and-son relationship in the true sense because I was not living with Merric as he grew up. But I had tried to become friends with him. We had talked about women as men do, and I had told him that it was his life, but whatever he did he should use condoms.

Of course I had been through the same thing with his mother. I was 19 at the time and things were different; condoms did not seem to us to be as acceptable or essential as they are now. In any case, I am supporting him, so how is he going to support his child? My dad used to tell me that if I slept with a woman, then I obviously thought I was a man. So I should act like one and be able to support a child. In my view, it was no different for Merric.

I can deal with the press. But Merric can't. They followed him, hounded him, persuaded him that if he didn't co-operate, they would take pictures and run the story anyway. So he decided he might as well make some money out of it.

I advised him not to do that. I said that once he had taken money, his life would never be his own. Then he told me he was going on a breakfast television show. He had become a father, he was my son - and he was black. It was a way of saying, "There's another black man out there having kids and not being able to support them." They were not, as he might think, making him a star.

It made me sad; you try to explain and kids don't understand. They think its an easy life out there, they don't realise it is a dog-eat-dog world.

I have often wondered just what I will do when I retire. My initial reaction is that I will stay at home. The only certainty is that I will take a long holiday.

After that? Perhaps I will think more about poetry, which is something I have been good at since my schooldays. I write quite a bit. It's just a knack. Mandy is pretty good too. I don't know why it happened, but it's something that we both enjoy. I find it very easy. If, say, I am in a hotel room, it is no problem to sit down and compose a few verses. I have filled many books and written for Mandy. Nothing has been published; I'm not sure I want to go into that just yet. I have written about the sport, about love, about things you would never expect.

Then again, perhaps I could help Mandy set up a business. She is brilliant at interior design work and was responsible for choosing the decor at our new home in Florida. It will be nice to have a more settled life together. Obviously we have talked about children and that's one of the things we're looking forward to. It's a gift to be able to have kids and I am in a position to give my children all the things they need - but with out spoiling them.

I could be drawn into working with young athletes. I see that some of the training and advice they receive is not of much use. It is not that the coaches concerned are of poor quality, it is just that I think I have a great deal more experience and could do a better job.

I can honestly say that I don't look back with any regret on any part of my career. I am satisfied with everything I have achieved and there have been no major disappointments. Things have not always gone the way I wanted them to go - but that didn't mean a huge disappointment. The popular expression is that "life's a bitch". But life is only bitch when things are going badly wrong and I don't think I can really say that.

Only God knows what the future holds for me. I find it sad that religion no longer seems to play such an important part in family life; certainly not as much as it did when I was a child in Jamaica. There seems to be a general decline in standards all round and we are hardly set a good example in this country by high-ranking officials.

It is also very clear to me that racism, especially in Britain, has become institutionalised. That's how I honestly see it. I try, in my own way, to show that something can be done not just for black people but for all races. I try to put a smile on faces across the world and I am in a position to do that because I am known more or less everywhere. In my small way, I would like to think I bring the nation together thanks to my achievement on the track. I will always remember the saying, which was permanently attached to the notice board of my school in Jamaica, "When a great writer comes to write against your name, he writes not how you won or lost but how you played the game."

I can't say what the judgement will be, but to be honest with you, I will have no complaints if people remember me as one of the best sprinters in the world. Nothing will ever change that

'To Be Honest With You: The Autobiography of Linford Christie' is published on Monday by Michael Joseph, price pounds 16.99 hardback

Book offer Readers of The Independent Magazine can buy a copy of To Be Honest With You for the special price of pounds 12.99 including postage and packing (rrp pounds 16.99). Please make cheques payable to Penguin Books Ltd and send to The Independent Book Offer, P enguin Books Ltd, Bath Road, Harmondsworth, Middlesex UB7 0DA. This offer, subject to availability and limited to one book per person, is available to residents of the UK and the Republic of Ireland only. The closing date for receipt of orders is 31 October, 1995. Please allow 30 days for delivery. A refund will be given in the event that demand exceeds supply. In the event of any query, please contact Penguin Books Ltd.

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