Olympic Games: Christie wins gold - and lifts the gloom

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Linford Christie, the British team captain, last night became the oldest man ever to win the Olympic 100 metres title with a performance that lifted the gloom on a difficult week for British athletes in Barcelona.

'It was the best race of my life, and it's the best day of my life, and that was the best feeling I've ever had in my life,' he said afterwards.

Sometimes thought of as a difficult and enigmatic man, 32-year- old Christie is only the third British runner to have won the 100 metres gold. The others were Harold Abrahams, in Paris in 1924, whose victory was recreated in the film Chariots of Fire, and Allan Wells, who won in Moscow in 1980, the year of the boycott by the United States.

You can only race the men who turn up, of course, and the man Christie must have feared most last night, 25-year-old Leroy Burrell from the powerful Santa Monica Track Club, gave an indication of frailty when his barely perceptible twitch in the blocks triggered Christie's forward lunge and led to the call of a false start.

When the race did get started, the heavily muscled Burrell ran lumpily and left the challenge to Frank Fredericks, of Namibia, and Dennis Mitchell, of the USA. Burrell, wearing a pair of expensively developed new running shoes, their spikes angled at 105 degrees to push against the track at the most effective angle, finished a poor fifth.

Afterwards, Christie talked first about 'focus', the preoccupation of the present generation of athletes - the currency of success, the quality that makes the difference.

And for 9.96 seconds in the twilight of a warm Catalan evening, Linford Christie focused harder than the rest.

Bruny Surin, the most unfortunate of his rivals, a talented Canadian who had finished with nothing but the satisfaction of being fourth best on the night, told of how he had led for the first 20 or 30 metres and then lost his focus.

'I don't know,' he said. 'I guess I started to run the other guys' race instead of my own.'

What 'focus' meant to Linford Christie was that he was only ever going to run one race: his own.

'I was focused down the line,' he said, still draped in a Union flag and under assault from a battalion of microphones. 'I wasn't looking for anybody else. I wasn't taking any prisoners. I was just concentrating on my own lane and trying to get to the other end. 'I can't remember much about it.'

He thanked his coach, Ron Roddan; he thanked the English and Spanish fans who had cheered him in the stadium; he even thanked his rivals, particularly the US team.

There were ghosts about, though: the ghosts of Seoul, where he finished the race with a bronze medal which became a silver upon the disqualification of Ben Johnson. Johnson himself had disappeared with a wretched semi-final performance earlier in the evening. As he bent to remove his spikes at the mouth of the tunnel, Christie offered him a consoling pat on the shoulder.

The other ghost was that of Carl Lewis, inheritor of the gold in Seoul, still the world record holder but a victim of a sinus infection at the US trials. Lewis's recent return to form came too late to get him an entry.

'Carl's a great athlete,' Christie said simply, 'but he was't here today. I ran against the seven guys who qualified.'

His victory last night will have people asking, for the 1000th time, what makes Linford Christie tick. 'It's a hard question to answer interestingly,' someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about him said last week. 'He likes girls, and he likes running fast. He likes looking after his body. And that's about it.'

After a difficult week, in which his protege and fellow sprinter Jason Livingston was sent home in disgrace, Christie in victory showed himself to be an entirely worthy captain of the British team. To judge by the response from spectators of all nations inside the stadium, there can hardly ever have been a more popular winner of the Games's most intensely scrutinised event.

And for the next four years, whatever happens, he's the fast man. Christie has the medal; we all have the memory.