Christiecould never outrun shadow of drugs

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THE NEWS that traces of a banned steroid have been found in Linford Christie's urine will produce in some quarters an automatic response that, at last, the great 100 metres champion stands exposed for what he has always been. In modern athletics, where drugs are concerned, the presumption of guilt is overwhelming, particularly in the case of sprinters.

Times may be changing, however, and the recent successful appeals of two British athletes, Diane Modahl and Dougie Walker, against positive drugs tests will give hope to Christie as he prepares to defend himself, not for the first time but surely for the last, at the end of a career that brought him Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth titles and made him one of the greatest British athletes of all time.

Christie's own response to the result of the test, conducted during an indoor meeting in Dortmund on 13 February, is consistent with every view he has ever expressed on doping throughout his career. He is not guilty, he says. And in this case his denial is strengthened by what appears to be the sheer absurdity of the timing of the alleged offence.

Three years ago his career as a top international sprinter came to a controversial end when he was disqualified from the 100 metres final at the Atlanta Olympics after making two false starts in his attempt to defend the title he won in Barcelona four years earlier.

At 36, his career at the pinnacle of his sport had already been unusually prolonged - the result, probably, of having come to it comparatively late. But now a new generation of sprinters - including Donovan Bailey, the Canadian who won the gold in Atlanta, Maurice Green, the new world record holder from the US, and Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago - has taken over.

Since his eclipse in Atlanta, Christie has spent most of his time coaching a small group of talented young British athletes, in particular the sprinter Darren Campbell and the 400 metres runners Jamie Baulch and Katharine Merry, and has also become a commentator for BBC Television.

At 39, his own participation in major competitions has tapered off, although he undertook a programme of indoor events last winter, including the meeting in Dortmund. As an athlete, he has won all the titles and made all the money he is ever going to make, so to submit himself to a regime of steroid intake at this late stage would seem unbelievably perverse, not to say potentially damaging to his long- term health.

Doubts about Christie were first voiced towards the end of the Eighties, when it became obvious that he had turned himself from a decent national- level athlete into a contender for the greatest prizes in the sport. Coincidentally, his body shape had changed. The pronounced increase in upper body size and strength was, he claimed, the result of rigorous weight-training and not, as some believed, the use of anabolic steroids.

At the Seoul Olympics in 1988 he achieved his finest result up to that point by coming third in the 100 metres behind his friend Ben Johnson, of Canada, and Carl Lewis, of the United States. Johnson, who had broken the world record in the final, subsequently tested positive for steroids and was stripped of the title and banned from competition. Christie also tested positive, for a stimulant called pseudoephedrine, but was cleared and allowed to keep his silver medal after explaining that he had taken it in the form of ginseng tea.

Four years later he was captain of the British team in Barcelona when officials of the British Olympic Association announced that Jason Livingston, his young colleague in the 100 metres squad, had produced a positive test at an earlier meeting, in which traces of a steroid called methandianone had been detected. It was Christie's job to get Livingston out of the Olympic Village and on to a plane, while ensuring the minimum of disruption to the rest of the team and to his own preparation.

Two years later, on the eve of the European Championships, he also had to deal with the case of Solomon Wariso, a young 400 metres runner who was a member of the training group supervised by Ron Roddan, Christie's coach. Wariso had produced a sample containing the banned substance ephedrine after taking a proprietary stimulant called "up your gas", for which he subsequently served a ban.

Christie made a notable success of the team captain's role, to the surprise of many who were familiar only with the prickly demeanour he sometimes exhibited in public. Despite having been born in Jamaica, and enduring the usual difficulties encountered by successful young black men who drive around London in expensive cars, he displayed a wholehearted and surprisingly fierce patriotism. "I only lived in Jamaica for seven years," he once told me. "I've lived here for 28. I can't be anything other than British. But we need to go out there and feel proud to be British. We should be instilling that in schools."

But he was never unrealistic in his pronouncements on the existence of drugs in athletics. "Everybody who gets caught on drugs will say they haven't taken anything," he wrote in his autobiography, To Be Honest With You, published in 1995. "You can catch them with a needle in their arm and they will tell you somebody threw the needle. If they get caught then they should say so: `I got caught. Fair cop'. They know the score."

But another observation is likely to be more relevant to his own defence on this occasion. "Ninety nine point nine per cent of athletes," he wrote, "will take anything which is not illegal if they believe it will help." It would be no surprise if, like so many athletes, he had spent his years of glory living on the edge of the law.