Athletics: Christie enters space race

Mike Rowbottom on familiar noises coming from the Ministry of Sound
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Linford Christie appeared in London as a spaceman yesterday. But what he regards as his final frontier remains a mystery.

The former Olympic champion - making a bizarre promotional appearance for his shoe company Puma at the futuristic Ministry of Sound club - maintains that he is first and foremost a coach these days. After all, he did announce his retirement from international competition last season. Racing, though, is still clearly an option, as he demonstrated with his impromptu outing in Norway last weekend.

And while he denies that he will do any more "majors", you sense that he still plans to make a flourish on the track some time this season.

"You never know," he said, from inside a tinfoil Babygro with hood, his expression becoming momentarily wolfish rather than sheepish. "I'm going to run for my club a lot. I'm having fun now."

As he stood uneasily beneath a ceiling full of huge prophylactics - which might either have been representations of stalactites or reminders for safe sex - fun seemed very far away.

So, too, according to him, did this summer's World Championships. "They are in August. I don't even think that far."

Parallels with last year when Christie demurred over doing the Olympics until the eleventh hour are not hard to observe. But whatever involvement the 36-year-old has as a competitor this season, he has already shifted the balance of his attention towards coaching in a way he has never done before.

While the administration of British athletics is currently convulsing itself, athletes themselves are demonstrating a spirit of co-operation never previously seen. Christie has become established this winter as role model and overseer to a group of top-class sprinters including experienced men such as John Regis and Darren Braithwaite, and highly promising newcomers like Jamie Baulch, Darren Campbell and Ian Mackie.

The man whom the 23-year-old Baulch described as "big daddy coach" last weekend has taken his work extremely seriously, setting training schedules for all and passing on his experience to the younger members.

"Before this year it all seemed to be about cliques," he said. "You felt that training was all a big secret. Now, for the first time, all the top sprinters in Britain are learning from each other."

Yet Christie, who leads by example during his sessions, is in excellent shape himself. The suggestion that those he is training need to be wary of being beaten by him sometime this season raises a chuckle.

"The law of the jungle is eat or be eaten," he says. "But I hold nothing back. If I was really out there this season to compete with them, I wouldn't tell them a lot of the things I do."

Christie, who leaves on Monday for a month's training in Australia accompanied by Regis and Campbell, is careful not to pressurise any young sprinter by singling him out for praise. "But if this group continue to work as hard as they are now, the sky is the limit," he said. "In the end, it will be down to the guy who works the hardest and wants it the most."

Christie would not be drawn on who should succeed the outgoing BAF executive chairman, Peter Radford, although he said that the formation of the British Athletes' Association - of which he is a founder director - was a "move in the right direction".

As far as his own direction is concerned, he sees himself coaching only through to the year 2000. Of course, Christie turns 40 in that year which would make him eligible for the World Veteran Championships. Don't rule it out.