Athletics: Christie comeback cut off

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THE KING IS BACK, the banner at the head of the home straight proclaimed. He was not, however, back for very long. Linford Christie's return to championship athletics lasted a mere 6.84 seconds in the National Indoor Arena yesterday. There was no coronation at the Lynx Express AAA Indoor Championships for the man who ruled European sprinting for a decade. His 38-year-old body failed to get him beyond the heats of the 60m.

It got him off his starting blocks and motoring down lane three comfortably enough. But, after easing up to take the second qualifying place behind Newham's Raymond Salami in 6.86 secs, Christie left the arena clutching his right leg. "I haven't torn anything," he said. "I just felt a pull in my hamstring." The pull was strong enough to persuade the grand old man of British sprinting to pull out of the meeting. "I'll give it a week and then look for another race," he said.

Instead of Christie celebrating his comeback with a 27th national title, Jason Gardener collected the blue riband prize on the opening day of the championships. In doing so, the 23-year-old from Bath joined Christie at the top of the British rankings. His winning time, 6.57 secs, equalled Christie's performance in Karlsruhe last Sunday. It was an impressive run by the west countryman who won silver in the European indoor championships last year. He had to produce a powerful finish to get past Jason Livingston, who must have thought he had the gold in his pocket at 40m.

It was the final irony in the week when the launch of UK Athletics, the sport's new governing body, coincided with news of Doug Walker's failed drugs test that Christie and Livingston were in the spotlight yesterday. Both, like Walker, know how it feels to be on the positive side of a doping test.

Fortunately for Christie, the trouble that brewed for him at the Seoul Olympics proved to be a storm in a tea cup. By a single vote, the International Olympic Committee's 23-strong medical commission accepted his assertion that the pseudoephedrine detected in his urine sample after the 200m final found its way inadvertently into his system via ginseng tea. Prince Alexandre de Merode, the chairman of the commission, said that Christie had been given "the benefit of the doubt". And, 11 years later, the veteran sprinter is still benefiting.

That Christie won Olympic and world championship gold and became installed as a national hero after his potentially soul-destroying, and career- destroying, experience in Seoul may offer hope to Walker as he prepares the case for his defence. Then again, Livingston could tell him a less encouraging story. Back in 1992, the year he won the European indoor 60m title, Livingston, who works as a private investigator, tested positive for methandianone, an anabolic steroid. To this day he protests his innocence but he had to serve a four-year ban and will never be allowed to compete for Britain in the Olympic Games.

Christie may not have got on the podium yesterday but he got pretty close to it, presenting medals to the first three in the women's 60m, in which Christine Bloomfield beat Janine Whitlock, the British pole vault record holder, by a hundredth of a second, clocking 7.40 secs.

The women's 400m final might have been an equally close affair had Melanie Neef not been shunted off the track at the bell. The 1995 European Cup winner, back in action after operations on both ankles, at least had the consolation of keeping her Scottish indoor record. In clocking 53.51 secs, though, and winning by the mightily impressive margin of 0.52 secs from the Commonwealth semi-finalist Michelle Thomas, the 22-year-old Edinburgh sprinter Sinead Dudgeon showed the promise of a breakthrough season.

It has not been the best of weeks for Scottish athletics. Struck by one injury blow too many, Yvonne Murray announced yesterday that she has hung up her racing shoes. "I can't get back to the level of performance I want," the former European 3,000m champion said.

It remains to be seen whether Doug Walker gets the chance to get back to the level he achieved as one of Britain's nine gold medal successes at the European Championships in Budapest last summer. But a bad week for British athletics came to a painful conclusion yesterday when the unfortunate Katherine Horwill was hit by a stray shot after taking the silver medal in the 3,000m walk. It was a novel way of being shot in the foot.