Athletics: Christie hot off blocks: Sprinter records fastest time in Britain as leading athletes opt to stay in cold storage

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The Independent Online
LINFORD CHRISTIE'S talent, endurance and determination remain undiminished. Yesterday, running in an otherwise denuded KP National (formerly AAAs) Championships at the Don Valley stadium in Sheffield he set a time of 9.91sec, the best ever recorded in Britain, and though the wind speed dictated that he was not rewarded with a record, the manner of his performance was extraordinary.

Athletics badly needs such displays at present. Still living in the shadow of the Andy Norman affair and only just recouping lost sponsorship money, the sport had hoped that this weekend's bringing forward of the championships to avoid clashing with football's World Cup would start the season brightly. Yesterday however only Christie saved a day of numerous withdrawals.

In spite of European Championship and Commonwealth Games places being at stake, a conspicuous number of Britain's best simply could not or will not turn up in Sheffield. One of the best who is going to compete today, Roger Black - albeit reluctantly - said the demands of the season had always looked absurd even before the AAA allowed television to move the championship back into a cool time of year when most leading athletes prefer to be in warmer Majorca.

For some there was never any chance of recovering from injuries in time for Sheffield where the absence of Colin Jackson, Eamonn Martin, John Regis, Tom McKean, David Grindley, Curtis Robb, Steve Cram, Steve Smith and Phylis Smith among others diminished the occasion.

For Christie, however, the season has begun busily and quickly. He only arrived in Sheffield late on Friday night after competing in Nuremberg earlier in the evening.

Not until he faces the American Leroy Burrell will he really be tested. In Germany he ran a fast 10.09sec but even after improving on that yesterday he says he feels that his speed over the first 30m can be improved significantly.

Christie's win yesterday equalled E McDonald Bailey's record total of seven AAA titles. There was never any doubt that he would.

In the semi-finals, he started indifferently but smoothed his way through impressively in 10.03sec which was at that point the fastest time of the season in Europe. The final brought him up against the pretender to his several crowns, Solomon Wariso, a 27-year-old late developer who might have challenged Christie a few years ago had he not so disliked training. But it was Michael Rosswess who pushed Christie beneath 10 seconds.

Never before has Christie looked so majestic so early in a season. He started indifferently, allowing Rosswess to take what for 60 metres could have been an unassailable lead. But Christie's ability suddenly to claw into his remarkable reserves of acceleration paid off again and at the line he was an undisputed winner in a notable time that will never receive official recognition because of a gusting following wind.

'At the moment I'm running on sheer strength,' Christie said. 'When I get a few more races behind me, I'll work at speed. That was my worst start for years but I knew I was always going to win. We only got back into Leeds airport at 10 o'clock last night and I went to bed at 3am.

'I just feel so strong at the moment. I've trained very hard this season but I won't know until I run against Leroy whether it's paid off. If you're the guy everyone wants to beat, you've got to put in that much more work.'

In a similar attempt to sharpen speed, Sally Gunnell attempted the 100m hurdles and was quickly reminded why she is better over a longer distance. After 10 metres she was trailing fifth, but when Jackie Agyepong clouted the sixth hurdle, the race lost its most likely winner, leaving a fast recovering Gunnell to challenge Clova Court for victory. She missed by a fraction.

This is going to be a difficult season for Gunnell who will badly miss serious competition from her main rival, the American Sandra Farmer-Patrick, who is pregnant. But the European and Commonwealth titles this summer are well within her capabilities. Her attitude to yesterday's race was phlegmatic; she commented afterwards that starting had never been her forte but she enjoyed the shorter distance 'because you can be more aggressive'. As for Clova Court, she was elated. For the past three seasons she has been the heptathlon title winner but at 34 she is becoming a real hurdles expert.

The highlight of the weekend - Christie's performance apart - is likely to come today when Steve Backley, the former world-record holder, faces Mick Hill, the world championship bronze-medal winner. So far this season, Backley has achieved 84.94m but Hill recently went to Finland, the home of the event, and threw 86.30m.

But the message from Sheffield this weekend is that with so many athletes either snubbing the championships or recuperating, the European Championship and Commonwealth Games selectors are almost bound to reconsider their decision not to invite anyone who failed to appear. If they refuse, priorities will clearly be turned on their heads.

John Ngugi, Kenya's five-times world cross country champion, will be allowed to appeal against a four-year suspension for refusing to take a dope test, the IAAF said yesterday.

(Photograph omitted)

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