Athletics: Christie discovers new drive: Mike Rowbottom reports from Havana on a brightness on the horizon for a spirited British men's athletics team

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The Independent Online
THERE was something symbolic about the cluster of British athletes which formed around the flag for the closing ceremony here to the sixth, and quite possibly last, World Cup.

As Fidel Castro gazed down approvingly at the spectacle from the main stand, Linford Christie stood in the front rank, chatting with Tessa Sanderson, who was carrying the flag for the European women's team. At 32 and 36 respectively, they have experienced everything athletics has to offer, including Olympic Games victory.

Behind Christie, equally animated, stood the next generation of British talent: Brendan Reilly, who, along with fellow 19-year-old Steve Smith, looks ready to challenge the best of the world's high jumpers in the next few years; Mark Richardson, who at 20 has the potential over 400 metres to match the exploits of Britain's new 19-year-old record-holder, David Grindley; and the gold medallists in the 4 x 100m at the recent world junior championships - Allyn Condon, Darren Campbell, James Baulch and Jason Fergus.

It was a testament to the spirit of what was a makeshift British team at the end of a long and wearisome season that they finished as the top individual nation, just 12 points behind the World Cup winners, Africa.

Christie and Colin Jackson duly delivered victories in their main events, with Christie adding a second place in the 200 metres; Jonathan Edwards and David Sharpe were more unexpected winners, in the triple jump and 800 metres respectively; while Richardson and Jon Ridgeon excelled themselves to finish in silver-medal position at 400m and 400m hurdles.

If Britain had had a full- strength team they might have won the Cup; then again, other teams, particularly the United States, included even less established performers. Whatever the arguments about what might have been, the enduring benefit of this event to British athletics has been the experience it has provided for a new wave of competitors.

'This is a pivotal point for the next four years,' Frank Dick, Britain's director of coaching, said. 'I like to think of it not as the end of a great year but as a start, a springboard for the next Olympics.'

The main area of concern for Dick in the long term is the difficulty British runners have experienced at endurance events in conditions such as there were here, and at the last world championships and Olympics, in Tokyo and Barcelona respectively. The two to suffer here were Ian Hamer, who finished fourth in the 10,000m in 91 per cent humidity, and John Mayock, who struggled to seventh place in the 5,000m on the final day in 75 per cent humidity.

As president of the European coaches' union, Dick is laying plans for the establishment of winter training centres, perhaps in the Bahamas or Florida, where European athletes can become accustomed to running in similarly humid conditions.

That would provide another springboard for the Olympics. But it seems certain that Christie, the dominant figure of this event for Britain in terms of his commitment as team captain on and off the track, will not be one of those launching himself in the direction of Atlanta four years hence.

At 32, he is now talking in terms of two more years in international competition. But his talk is suffused with optimism and almost a sense of wonder at how his career has developed. His ambition now extends to completing a sprinting grand slam by adding the world title next year to those he already holds at Olympic, European and Commonwealth level. Beyond that, he intends to defend his European and Commonwealth titles in 1994, even though the competitions come within a week of each other.

'The world championships is the only one I haven't won,' he said. 'Nothing is impossible. If someone had said a few years ago that I would be Olympic champion, they'd have said that was impossible too.

'It seems I'm getting better. When will it taper off? I don't know. The thing is I feel young. If you knock around with young people they make you feel young, and the age of this team is 24 or 25. Now everyone is coming through I want to be around for a while longer. Winning is still the motivation for me.

'At the end of the day it's all about achievement; it's all about doing more than the previous guy.' He paused, and glanced over at the nearby figure of Campbell, the 18-year-old whom he sees as the most talented of the new British sprinters. 'I'm going to make it hard for Darren,' he said.