Linford Christie: Pied piper plays tune for a new generation of followers. But are they listening at 2012?

The stadium in his name has been given a facelift. Alan Hubbard meets the track idol reinventing himself as a coach who deserves more respect
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The Independent Online

With British athletics at its lowest ebb for years, the ostracised Christie has been quietly demonstrating the sort of coaching qualities that even his bitter adversary Sebastian Coe, whom the 1992 Olympic sprint champion alleges froze him out of anything to do with the London 2012 Olympic bid, desperately needs.

The crowd - mums, dads, kids and scores of athletes from the multicultured local community - cheered as the balloons went up, hardly mindful of the one that did somewhat differently on Christie's career way back in 1999. Although his two-year ban for a nandrolone drugs offence he still vehemently denies ended four years ago, he has remained a pariah, ignored by UK Athletics and, until recently, by the media. But now he is back on the box, and among friends, his opinions sought and his credentials as a coach appreciated by those even outside his own immediate circle.

But what about his lack of involvement in 2012? "To be honest, at the end of the day, I'm not really worried about it," he says. "I have got better things to do in working with my athletes who I feel are going to be involved in 2012. If I'm not there in any official capacity, it's their [2012's] loss. It's up to other people to make the judgement as to whether I should be, or why I was not involved in the bid."

"An outrage, a damned outrage!" came an angry voice from the group of fans clustered around him as we chatted. Many people in athletics are beginning to feel the same way.

Christie says he is is actively coaching "eight or nine" athletes and is advising a number of others. Some of his group are in Wales, others in different parts of the country, including west London. His "prize pupil", Darren Campbell, is a Mancunian. Campbell, Britain's top sprinter, has been with Christie for almost 10 years. He says: "It disappoints me that he has not got the recognition he deserves as a coach. He should be out there coaching more athletes on a national basis. If I'm the best sprinter in Britain, then he has to be the best coach."

So what are Christie's special qualities? "Well, to begin with, he is compassionate," says Campbell. "He is not a bully. He doesn't throw cups of tea. People who say he is arrogant don't know him. What it is about him is confidence, belief. I know it's a fine line, but I have known him since I was a 14-year-old and he has always had a soft side. One of his greatest assets is that mentally he is one of the strongest people I have ever met."

Campbell dismisses any thought that Christie's drugs ban has tarnished him. "I don't see what it's tarnishing. To me the whole situation is stupid. You're talking about a man who has won Olympic Games, World Championships, Commonwealth Games, European Championships. You get tested after every one of those. If Linford was taking anything, it would have come out. Common sense tells you it's not true."

Christie maintains: "My first love is the sport, and it will always be my priority. I am a coach on the outside of the establishment and that works. I think the athletes respond well to me because I have been successful. I know what it takes to get to the top. I know what psychological games to play and the importance of mental power."

Christie has been critical about recent performances by British athletes, saying that some are motivated more by money than medals. He thinks that Lottery funding has made some soft, and he believes they do not have the same desire he had. "I think it's great that they are getting funding, but it's just too easy. They don't have to work for it. We did it because we had pride, because we loved it.

"Some of today's athletes do not have that kind of pride. They left school at 16, have never had a job in their life and are getting Lottery funding, earning money as an athlete. It's a problem that has to be addressed. We have got to go out there and deliver, go on the streets and find athletes, improve facilities around the country and find coaches. We have got to go out there and search for a star.

"But I sometimes think we have too much of a fixation about 2012. The people who are potential medal winners there are now aged 17 and upwards. A lot of people have got this idea that we should be looking at really young kids, 10 years old or so, for those Games, but it is those who are already established in the system, or who are on the verge of getting into it or who don't know how to, that we should be concentrating on." But is that system right for them? "Well, we'll see. We'll have to sit back and wait. If you criticise something then you have to have an alternative, but we do have to try and improve things."

Christie believes that the rebirth of Hammersmith and Fulham Council's stadium will see a huge increase in the participation within the local community. He is the president of his club, Thames Valley Harriers, who will also be making use of the new track, which is part of the renovations following a £600,000 cash injection, primarily from Barclays and the Football Foundation, which includes four five-a-side football pitches.

"This is an arena for the community first and foremost. There is so much talent here that has not been realised. Obviously I was disappointed when it fell into disuse, because it was my own track named after me, but I am sure all those youngsters we lost will be coming back, and I certainly intend to be down here as much as I can, coaching and advising. I will train here [these days he does "strides" rather than sprints], and so will some of my group.

"My old coach, Ron Roddan, will still be here, and there's no greater spotter of talent. I think it is good for youngsters to see me at 45 still jogging around the track. If me being here gives them a boost then that's great."

Roddan, Christie's career-long guru, is 69. "It's people like Ron who are the real heroes in sport. When you see athletes like me win gold medals, you only see the finished product, you don't see the real effort that the likes of Ron have put into making that product. Without the Ron Roddans of this world, you would have no sport."

Christie hopes that his club will also promote athletics meetings at the stadium. "Now that we've got it up and running again, we've got a few ideas about that. I don't think there are really enough meetings in Britain for our athletes to compete properly, and because of this a lot of the talent we have has been stunted."

He swears "on my children's lives" that he never took an illegal substance, and would still happily take a lie-detector test, but whatever the truth, should sport - and especially Lord Coe - now forgive and forget? Interestingly, the England footballer Rio Ferdinand, who was suspended for avoiding a test - an offence which makes him as culpable as Christie in the eyes of the authorities - will next week be named as spearheading a new nationwide activity campaign (though cynics might suggest he should show a little more activity in the England defence). And how about Jürgen Grobler, the man behind British rowing's triumphs, who was part of the drugs-infested East German sports structure? The British skier Alain Baxter, banned after the last Winter Olympics for a drugs offence, is now back on the piste and likely to compete in Turin. So isn't it time Christie came in from the cold?

The question is not whether athletics should show Christie Nuff Respect again but whether it can afford not to. Sport England's chief executive, Roger Draper, himself a former drugs-testing officer, is among those who believes that Christie's case for becoming part of the establishment again is compelling. He says: "Linford was one of our greatest sportsmen, an asset to sport, and who still has great appeal to youngsters. There is a sort of Pied Piper aura about him. He has the ability to get kids active and to develop talent which is coming through the system. Sport needs people like him to get others involved."

There has always been more to Linford Christie than meets the eye. He sews, he cooks, he gardens - he once made a gardening series for the BBC - he will sit for hours with kids (he has five of his own) and has even played Santa Claus. He is also involved in a campaign to save London's trees. A new man. In every sense.

BIOGRAPHY

Linford Christie MBE

Born: 12 April 1960 in Jamaica.

Family: Lives in west London with long-term partner Mandy.

Career highlights: Olympic Games: 1988 - silver 100m, silver 4x100m. 1992 - gold 100m.

World Championships: 1987 - bronze 100m. 1991 - bronze 100m. 1993 - gold 100m, silver 4x100m.

European Championships: 1986 - gold 100m, bronze 4x100m. 1990 - gold 100m, silver 4x100m. 1994 - gold 100m.

Also: MD of Nuff Respect, a sports management company. When he won Olympic 100m title was oldest man (32) to do so. At 35 set his first world record. Now trains and promotes athletes.

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