Athletics: Briton blooms majestically in the autumn of his career

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THERE was nothing phoney about this one. This one was for real, not something devised by money men, and when it mattered most nobody in the field could live with Linford Christie, the oddly immature west Londoner who at 33 added the 100 metres World Championship to the title he took last year in the Barcelona Olympics.

Christie is ruled by impulse. When he is pleased he laughs; in a tantrum he snarls at newspapermen and strides imperiously past television and radio interviewers, daring them to intrude upon his concentration. Probably it has something to do with his calling, but in Christie's mind there are no devils quite like those who write about him.

But on the track there is no denying Christie's class or the extent of his determination to succeed. It is always there in his eyes: the stillness. Focus they call it. When all other qualities are more or less equal, focus separates the good from the great.

Carl Lewis was there this time. The world record-holder, the greatest athlete of the age. 'If Lewis had been there it might have been different,' people said last year in Barcelona, reflecting on the illness that brought about the American's failure to qualify in the national trials, while his form in the relay was brilliant. But Lewis, fourth in Christie's wake behind Andre Cason and Dennis Mitchell, was probably consigned to 100m history in Stuttgart.

Gloomy after a poor performance in the semi-finals, when he had to pick up speed dramatically over the last 30m in order to qualify, he knew that it was beyond him to threaten Christie's recent domination of the event. 'I had a poor start. I'm nowhere near where I ought to be,' he confided, off-air, to a television producer.

So it was left to others. Most obviously Cason, the chunky, bulge-thighed 23-year-old from Virginia who works out with the World Boxing Council welterweight champion, Purnell Whittaker. Cason's first threatening statement had been delivered in the heats, when he came home in 9.96sec, his best and the best in the world this year. He improved to 9.94 in the semi-final and by then he was just about level with Christie in the betting. But had he peaked too soon?

Of course, nobody could tell, but in any case Christie was content to let the others worry about him. 'We all do now,' said Leroy Burell, who is working for television at the championships after failing to make the US team.

This was not the state of things two years ago in Tokyo. Then the Americans did not look beyond themselves. But Christie is a man transformed in the autumn of his sprinting career. Nobody can touch him. His are among the greatest achievements in the history of British athletics.

Because it appears sometimes that he has not yet learned to live with fame, he has come in for adverse criticism and has got more than he deserves. With luck, as one of the great champions, he should be able to profit from the experience.