Athletics: Christie hands on the baton

Simon Turnbull discovers that the great sprinter is grooming his heirs
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So the end of the world is nigh. The end of the World Championships as we have come to know them, that is.

Not since the inaugural championships in Helsinki 14 years ago has Britain sent a track and field team without Linford Christie challenging for the blue riband, the world 100m crown. And even then the flying Scot, Allan Wells, finished fourth to the clean-sweeping Americans, Carl Lewis, Calvin Smith and Emmit King. This year, in Athens in August, Britain will be without a leading contender in a global 100m contest for the first time since the dark days before Wells exploded on to the scene.

Cynics may suggest that British athletics was led down a similar path last year. It proved to be one of the garden variety when Christie went to Atlanta after all but this time the grand old man is not for turning. His declaration of Olympic disinterest was made in a fit of pique on a live television show. The announcement that his championship-chasing days are over was made, on Wednesday, with a fishing rod in hand while he relaxed in the Arabian Gulf.

The 10.15sec Christie clocked behind Ray Stewart in the Desert Grand Prix meeting the next day was confirmation that, even at 37, he is still fast enough to fly the British flag. But, after a decade of championship campaigning, one-off races are all that interest the man who has won every major title, in what he has pledged will be his definite farewell year. The Europa Cup in Munich in June, where an eighth successive 100m win beckons, would be a welcome addition to Christie's agenda. But the World Championships? "No way," he insisted. "I am not interested at all."

Which takes British sprinting back to Wells and before, though not to the black hole of 1976, when the Olympic selectors deemed no 100m man worth sending to Montreal. There are new kids on the blocks, eager to chase in Christie's giant shadow. But they are not quite ready to take on the world with a realistic chance of winning. As Ian Mackie conceded: "It will take a good two or three years."

Mackie emerged as the brightest prospect last year, reaching the 100m semi-finals in Atlanta and reducing his personal best from 10.50 to 10.17. He also became the first Briton since Wells a decade earlier to beat Christie over 100m in anything other than a qualifying heat. That he is a promising investment for the future has been acknowledged by Christie, who has taken the Scot under his wing as part of the management company Nuff Respect, which he runs with Colin Jackson. Having trained with Christie and Jackson for most of the off-season, Mackie can expect his star to continue to rise this summer. And, having just turned 22, he has time on his side.

Christie's best 100m time at the same age was 10.50; Wells' was 11.1. Both were 26 when they broke through to world level. And both surged on to Olympic gold.

"Last year was a learning curve for me," Mackie said. "And the next two or three years will be the same. Last year I established myself by running 10.17 and Darren Campbell, who also trains with Linford and Colin, ran the same time too. There are other guys in Britain - Jason Gardener and Darren Braithwaite - but it will take time to break through. Sprinters don't really reach their physical peak until their late 20s and 30s. There's Linford, still running with the best in the world at 37.

"It does help myself and Darren Campbell having Linford and Colin passing on their knowledge and experience. They're an inspiration. I just want to do well, like them, and make something of my athletics career. I want to win world championships and Olympic titles. There'd be no point doing all of the hard work if you didn't think that way."

Mackie still lives in his native Dunfermline and trains there with his long-time coach, John Macdonald, father of Linsey, Britain's youngest ever Olympic track and field medallist. But much of his pre-season work has been as a stable-mate of Christie and Jackson. He spent five weeks before Christmas training with the Nuff Respect team in Australia and has joined Jackson in Wales to prepare for his first outdoor race of the year.

That should have been against Christie in Qatar but Mackie suffered a hamstring pull while chasing a runaway baggage trolley at Heathrow. He caught it, naturally, but not the flight. "Fortunately, it's just a small pull," Mackie said. "I'll be back in training this weekend."

Mackie's seasonal debut has been rescheduled for the East of Scotland Championships in Edinburgh on 10 May. As British sprinting enters its new era, it will be like going back to the future. It was on the same Meadowbank track in 1978 that Allan Wells led the way from the wilderness, shattering Peter Radford's 20-year-old British 100m record.