ATHLETICS: Christie flies in to watch from the wings

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The Independent Online


reports from Barcelona

Linford Christie will, after all, be just a spectator as the World Indoor Championships begin here today.

He discovered yesterday that it was effectively impossible for him to run in the 60 metres, even though he had indicated in a letter from his agent that he "would honour" a promised appeal by the president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, Primo Nebiolo.

Christie's proviso was that his inclusion would not affect Britain's nominated 60m runners, Darren Braithwaite and Mike Rosswess.

Responding on behalf of the president - who was dining with King Juan Carlos in Madrid - the IAAF chief of staff wrote back thanking Christie for his response. "However," he added, "we must clarify that the IAAF president's hope was, and remains, with the understanding that Linford would be one of the two athletes representing Great Britain in the 60m and/or 200m."

It was a final, farcical twist of events in a situation which has fluctuated bizarrely since Christie announced on 25 February that he would, after all, run in the championships.

Yet the wrangling over Christie paled in comparison to the traumatic experience which, it was revealed yesterday, has robbed the organisers of Venuste Niyongabo, the 21-year-old from Burundi, who has established himself as the best middle distance runner in the world behind Noureddine Morceli.

Niyongabo, who has lived in Sienna for three years, was detained for three hours by customs officials when he arrived at Barcelona airport on Wednesday afternoon before being deported back to Rome airport.

Due to paperwork arriving late from Niyongabo's home federation, no full visa was ready for him, but the championships' organisers told him to travel and guaranteed that they would clear his arrival.

Niyongabo, wearing his tracksuit and carrying his kit, became separated from his agent, Enrico Dionisi, who had several of his important documents. When he arrived at Rome, he was too late to catch a train back to Sienna and spent the night at the railway station before making his way back yesterday morning.

"I felt like a homeless person," he told the IAAF's press officer, Christopher Winner, yesterday. The Minister of Sport for Spain offered him a full apology and asked if he would consider returning.

"He said he had nothing against Spain, but he was just too tired after what he had gone through," Winner said. "He was terrified by his experience."

It was unfortunate that the latest IAAF magazine carries a profile of Niyongabo headlined "The Can't Miss Kid". That is merely indicative of the kind of luck the international federation is having as it seeks to project a world event which is notably lacking world-class athletes in certain areas. Niyongabo said that he might return to join his agent, who was frantic with worry about him until discovering his whereabouts yesterday.

If so, this event - absurdly - will take place with two of the greatest athletes in the world in the stands.

Christie, who was due to arrive in Barcelona late last night, has travelled with the intention of supporting the British team. But the national coach, Malcolm Arnold, and the team manager, Verona Elder, made it clear yesterday that they do not recognise Christie in the role of non-playing captain. If any captain were to be needed, they would be nominated in a team management meeting due to take place late last night.

The championships still have competitors of the highest calibre, including Sergei Bubka, Ukraine's world pole vault champion, and Irina Privalova, Russia's world 60m record holder who will explore her huge potential in the 400m against the outdoor world champion, Jearl Miles of the United States.

Britain's women look unlikely to gain a medal, although Jacqui Agyepong in the 60m hurdles and Melanie Neef in the 400m may surpass themselves. But the men could yet have a gold medallist in John Regis, who flew in yesterday after recovering from a hamstring injury and says he is ready to take on Norway's European champion, Geir Moen, over 200m. "I have been pain-free since Monday," he said. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could do justice to myself."

Regis's training partner, Tony Jarrett, also has a championship chance in the 60m hurdles in the absence of his perennial rival, Colin Jackson. However, Allen Johnson, the American athlete who has beaten Jackson this season, is likely to start as the favourite.

Christie's absence from the 60m could help move Braithwaite or Rosswess into medal contention today.

Bruny Surin, Canada's defending champion, and Andrei Grigoriev, of Russia, are the only faster runners this season who are here, having done 6.52sec to Braithwaite's best of 6.54.

By the same token, Niyongabo's absence may help John Mayock to earn a medal in the 3,000m to go alongside the European indoor silver he picked up in 1992.

Hylton checks in, page 47