Athletics: Bad omen for Goodwill: Norman Fox fears that the St Petersburg event will be devalued by the loss of Christie

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER hype America's powerful Turner television organisation may devise to justify the theory that their baby, the Goodwill Games, which opened in St Petersburg yesterday, is this season's substitute for an Olympics or world championship, the fact is that without Linford Christie to take on the new 100 metres world record holder, Leroy Burrell, the event is seriously devalued. Not that Christie is going to miss out financially. A huge pay-day, perhaps his last, is not far away.

It was as a backhanded tribute to Christie in particular and the emergence of British sprinting generally that yesterday Burrell and Carl Lewis were making pathetic attempts at sardonic humour by asking 'Who?' when his name was mentioned. His absence because of a slight hamstring injury substantially reduces what should have been the outstanding meeting of the season, but, put another way, what a sad reflection on British middle-

distance running, which through the performances of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett more or less created the televised athletics spectacular. No British middle-distance athlete currently has the talent or form to make the Olympic sprint champion's absence less of a blow to public and promoter.

Christie's non-appearance from any meeting takes away an essential crowd puller and, from a British point of view, someone who can deflect attention from weaknesses elsewhere. Had he been able to appear against a third-rate United States team at Gateshead last week, the fact that Britain still succumbed would probably have been forgotten. Christie transcends the sport, as did Coe and Ovett, but this could well be his last season on top of the world. His final big pay-day could come in Zurich next month. Provided he recovers sufficiently from his injury, he will face Burrell and Lewis with a prize of pounds 125,000 at stake for anyone who breaks the world 100m record, plus nearly pounds 20,000 for the winner and, of course, a substantial appearance fee. Is there life after Christie? The future of British sprinting is obviously not in his 34-year-old legs but with young men like Jason Gardener, who won the silver medal in the world junior championships in Lisbon on Thursday. Clearly Christie has been a greater inspiration than Ovett and Coe.

There are any number of potential British successors to Christie but, when the European Championship selectors met, also on Thursday, they had only tentatively pencilled in names for the 800m and their main hope for the 1,500m had been Matthew Yates, an athlete with potential and a self-destruct button that he presses too often. By missing his flight to Gateshead on Wedneday, Yates compounded his error of three years ago when he missed the plane for the world championships in Tokyo. Predictably and rightly, the selectors said they could not select him on the basis of one moderately good run in Nice.

Since Tom McKean, the European 800m champion, could finish only ninth in Oslo on Friday, if there is to be a revival of British middle-distance running, it will have to come from Kevin McKay, the national champion, and Craig Winrow, whose talent as a junior has never really been fulfilled as a senior. Winrow's good 800m in Gateshead still left him a long way off the world pace but at least he now rates in Europe's top half dozen. Sadly, last season's most successful British 800m runners, Martin Steele and Curtis Robb, are struggling this term.

At 10,000m the situation is even worse with Eamonn Martin today attempting last- minute qualification for the European Championships. His time in St Petersburg needs to be 28min 22.05sec, which even if he did achieve it would leave him one and a half minutes slower than the new world record holder, William Sigei, of Kenya, whose astonishing performance in Oslo on Friday night made a nonsense of the IAAF's latest idea to have separate world records for those achieved at altitude and at sea level. Sigei was running at altitude in Kenya up until a fortnight ago and had clearly retained the benefits in Oslo.

Now the grind of the

television-dictated season continues with the Goodwill Games, which Ted Turner, chairman of Turner Broadcasting, originally promoted as an opportunity to get the world's best athletes together without the nationalistic background of the Olympics and world championships. In fact it turns out to be just a slightly bigger than usual grand prix style event for which people like Sally Gunnell, who runs in the 400m hurdles today, and John Regis signed up and now regret.

Gunnell still has her biggest challenges ahead and is adamant that the schedule she has allowed herself to get involved in this season 'should never be repeated for any of the British athletes'. She admits: 'No, the Goodwill Games is not the big one for me.' Regis concurs. But at least it gives Gunnell an opportunity to take quick revenge for her recent defeat by Kim Batten, of the United States. It was one of those experiences that for most champions is inevitable given the level of expectation. 'I'll beat her this time, you wait and see,' Gunnell said. Her gutsy 400m (flat) win in Gateshead exuded an unblemished confidence that shines through exhaustion and the pressure of being a champion not only with gold medals but a heart of the same hue.

(Photograph omitted)