Athletics: Athletics' future and glorious past at stake

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The Independent Online
MY SIX-YEAR-OLD son thinks that all this stuff about Linford Crispie is rubbish. My 10-year-old daughter thinks it's rubbish, too. "Why would he take drugs when he's 39?" she announced this week. "I don't believe it. It's stupid."

Neither of them, to my knowledge, plans to be an athlete. To them, Christie is merely someone who was a runner but now presents Linford's Record Breakers on the BBC and does the funny advert about the dad trying to win at the school sports day and coming up against You Know Who. He is, according to the daughter at least, "seriously cool". This young section of the British public doesn't believe that Linford Christie is a cheat. Doesn't want to believe it. Because that knowledge would erode in them the small but precious terrain of something called trust.

There are those within the sport, and within the media, who will have greeted Wednesday's announcement of Christie's adverse doping test with secret glee. Derek Redmond, the former British 400 metres record holder who once famously described Christie as being perfectly balanced because he had "a chip on both shoulders", pointed out that the news will only confirm some people's belief that the former world and Olympic champion had been "at it" all along.

"How Did Linford Get This Good?" was the title of the obscure magazine article by John McVicar, the robber-turned-journalist, which Christie went out of his way to make the subject of a High Court libel case - one which reduced him to tears in the witness box and cost him an estimated pounds 90,000 in costs, even though he won pounds 40,000 in damages. Like a number of others, I asked him at the time why he had bothered to take action against an item that, given the magazine's minuscule circulation, had reached almost no one.

He replied: "I would do it again exactly the same. If someone wants to think I was on drugs, well, they can think what they like. But if someone writes it, I don't care if it was in a one-page magazine and only one person read it. Because it could be the wrong person. It could be a kid who has admired what I have done and wondered whether they could do the same thing." My reputation, Iago, my reputation.

What did perturb Christie was the response of certain people in the sport whom he felt had "sat on the fence, got scared and waited". Some are still there now, while others have already clambered down on to the other side.

It is not hard to see why - a sprinter does nothing until he is 26, develops his speed and his muscles, and carries on winning at the top level until he is 36. And wins races for bets against men half his age when he is 39. It is a truly extraordinary career.

Christie's PR problem is a variation on the old one - he didn't bother to be nice to everyone on his way up, because he never planned to come down. He was, in his athletic prime, a hugely unpredictable figure, which was what made him so fascinating to the media. That and the fact that the only predictable thing about him was his victories.

Now he faces what might be the most difficult challenge of his career, his defence against the test finding taken in February, in what will be a variation on an old theme - what was in Linford's lunchbox? One of the most affecting features of covering athletics in recent years has been the devotion to Christie displayed by the young athletes who he now coaches - Darren Campbell, Jamie Baulch, Katharine Merry. When they finish their races, they reach for their mobiles to talk to their father-figure.

The charges now laid by the anti-doping authorities threaten not just Britain's greatest athlete of recent times, but an environment which is nurturing some of Britain's finest young athletes. The future, as well as the glorious past, is at stake for British athletics.

As the papers fill once again with pictures of Christie's face, and the old scuffles with photographers return with dismal inevitability, I find myself thinking of the time four years ago when I interviewed Christie while sitting in the stands of an all-but-empty stadium at Crystal Palace. He was relaxed, literally laid-back, until he got suddenly to his feet and began shouting at a bulky figure making his way across the infield. It was Paul Edwards, the shot-putter who had been banned for taking steroids. "What are you doing here?" Christie screamed. "How can you show your face?!" If it was a charade, it was a convincing one. What was it the boy declared? Say it ain't so, Joe.