A theatre of broken dreams

The Linford Christie Stadium, where the Olympic champion still trains, will be mothballed in April unless cash is found; Norman Fox visits the track of tears in London where hopefuls are facing up to despair
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LINFORD CHRISTIE had only just returned from his warm weather training in Australia so was excused. But for the rest who bravely turned up for sprint training on Thursday night at the modest stadium on Wormwood Scrubs named after the great Olympic and world champion it was torture as usual. An "indoor" warm-up area, known as "the shed", is open on one side to the frosty night air, and the artificial track is beginning to become threadbare. The dressing rooms are comfortably warm - but they won't be for much longer.

The London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham renamed the West London stadium when Christie became their most famous local sportsman by winning Olympic gold in 1992. They also gave him the freedom of the borough. Last Thursday his coach, Ron Roddan, was overlooking the efforts of 30 young hopefuls as they worked out beneath the prison walls, overlooked by Hammersmith Hospital.

Clearly this is not one of Europe's more imposing sports facilities, yet, as Livon Houslin, a coach breathing warm defiance into the night air, pointed out: "It's home for one of Britain's leading athletics clubs." The club is Thames Valley Harriers, of which Christie is still an active member. And their home offers Roddan the chance to search for Christie's potential successors. For the time being it also allows hundreds of inner- city kids the opportunity to experience the competition and conviviality of grass roots athletics. But by next year, or the end of this summer, it could all be lost.

The council says it can no longer afford to maintain the stadium. TVH have to come up with pounds 80,000 a year to stay, followed by another pounds 300,000 to lay a new track. In the meantime, the arena is to be mothballed from April. The children who go there at present will be turned away. And TVH members will have to use their own small clubhouse, which they built themselves, as changing rooms.

The Government says sport must be encouraged; the Labour- controlled council says it has more important things on which to spend its money. Its spokesman, Rory Taylor, said: "We've been hammered with cuts. Basically there is money available but not enough to keep the stadium running, so Thames Valley have been given time to come up with a business plan and sponsorship. It will remain open for them to train but it's going to hit the schools hard - the dressing rooms and showers will be shut unless people want to pay for them to be opened. But we don't want to lose the facility, and if Thames Valley don't come up with a plan, we might have to reconsider."

The threat is not just to TVH. The fact that Roddan and Christie still regularly use the little stadium has turned it into a Mecca for young and not so young athletes. Internationals, such as Adrian Patrick, who ran in the 400m in last summer's world championships, is a member of Windsor, Slough and Eton club but travels to west London "because that's where my coach is, and he's the best". He said: "If they closed the stadium it wouldn't hit me and the other internationals as badly as the kids and the middle aged people. They can't afford to go travelling miles to find a track. I'd just go wherever Ron went."

And where would Roddan go? "I suppose it would have to be Perivale, but there's not much there, it's a bit bleak." Sheltering in the Shed, it was difficult to imagine anywhere more inhospitable in which to train for the humidity of Atlanta. If Roddan had to move Christie would follow and the plaque commemorating his Olympic win and the renaming of the stadium would become meaningless, or, in the hopeful words of the council spokesman, "ironic".

Tony Taylor, the TVH president, hopes that at least they can continue to use the stadium, albeit with limited facilities, until next year. "We have every hope of a short-term agreement and we'd like a shot at operating the stadium. In the long term we would like an agreement with the council, as have other clubs around London. But it's going to require more and more money, so we may have to look to developing it so that it can become profitable in itself. The best situation would be for the local authority to run the track for the public with Thames Valley as the principal club there, but it seems it can't be so for budget reasons. It would be absurd if Linford himself could not train at a stadium named after him."

Meanwhile, Britain's national coach for sprinting events, Richard Simmons, is perplexed: "Athletics simply cannot afford to lose a facility such as this. It's really worrying at a time when our sprinting standards are improving so much." The British Athletic Federation has been watching the situation anxiously because it symbolises the problems of grass roots athletics.

Their spokesman, Tony Ward, said: "In some areas we are seeing new stadia and good progress but here in an inner-city area we have seen a lack of investment. For instance, there was an assumption that synthetic tracks would last forever. They don't. It seems a bit ironic that when they make the Olympic champion a freeman and rename the stadium after him they then basically say 'we're not going to have anything more to do with it'.

"We know that athletics facilities are expensive, but they ought to be combined with other sports. Local authorities have traditionally been suppliers of track and field facilities because of the service they provide for the community. We know athletes have got to learn to pay realistic fees to train at these places."

Yet athletes themselves feel that they are the poor relations of sport and pay a high price in personal deprivation. There is a feeling that someone such as Christie takes too much out of the sport while other athletes suffer slim pickings, but at the stadium they have little to do with that argument. "He comes here and suffers like the rest of us," Patrick said. "We would be even worse off if he hadn't been around."

Five in the slipstream: British 100m men trying to keep up with Christie

Darren Braithwaite

Age: 28. Club: Haringey. Personal best: 10.12sec. Coach: Mike McFarlane.

Last season, before the World Championships in Gothenburg, where he reached the semi- finals, he had lost to only one British sprinter, Linford Christie, whose PB remains considerably quicker at 9.87sec. But he also beat Christie indoors over 60m in Birmingham. Last summer he moved from 16th to fourth in the UK all-time list, at the same time reaffirming his 200m ability with a best time of 20.47sec. He was third to the Canadian Bruny Surin in last year's world indoor championships and later became the AAA outdoor champion.

Dwain Chambers

Age: 17. Club: Haringey. PB: 10.41sec. Coach: Selwyn Philbert.

Probably the most talented of the young sprinters inspired by Christie. His long-term ambition is a medal at the Sydney Olympics, but he only began running seriously in 1994, when he won the AAA under-17 and English Schools 100m titles. Last season he won the European Youth Olympics 100m and a fortnight later became European junior champion. He will still be young enough to defend his European title in 1997 but this season he is among the favourites for the world junior championships 100m in Sydney.

Jason Gardener

Age: 20. Club: City of Bath AC. PB: 10.25sec. Coach: Dave Lease.

Announced his challenge by recording an impressive personal best of 6.55sec in the 60m at the GB-Russia match in Birmingham last week, the sixth fastest time by a Briton. He came to prominence in 1994, when he won silver at the world junior championships 100m in Lisbon plus gold in the 4x100 relay, but he failed to make last summer's world championships final. His coach says he can "rattle a few cages", including Christie's, but regularly repeating last weekend's form throughout the summer is another matter.

Julian Golding

Age: 20. Club: Blackheath. PB: 10.30. Coach: Mike McFarlane.

Comes from Harlesden, not far from where Christie grew up. Under McFarlane's guidance he has become one of Britain's most promising young sprinters. He beat Jason Gardener when winning the AAA under-20 100m in 1994, won a sprint relay gold in the world junior finals and finished eighth in the 100m. His PB came early last season when he beat Michael Rosswess and Toby Box. He is equally impressive over 200m, finishing fifth in last season's AAA and narrowly missing a place in Britain's world championship team.

Jason John

Age: 24. Club: Newham and Essex Beagles. PB: 10.23sec. Coach: Tony Hadley.

First ran for Britain in 1992 and won silver at last summer's AAA Championships. His best major performance was in the 1993 World Championships, when he reached the semi- finals and became the third most successful European. At the Commonwealth Games in 1994 he was a quarter-finalist but at last year's World Championships he was eliminated in the second round. Though he is a useful member of the relay squad, he still seeks a breakthrough in the individual sprint. British No 3 behind Christie and Braithwaite.