Athletics: Christie keeps winning formula

A year after ending his extraordinary athletics career, Britain's former multi-champion is still driven by the need to succeed, whether training a new generation of sprinters or defending his reputation in the High Court. Interview by Mike Rowbottom
Click to follow
The Independent Online
MIDWAY THROUGH last Saturday afternoon, an ex-athlete talking on a mobile phone strolled round the perimeter of Birmingham's Alexander Stadium, where the annual AAA Championships and trials were taking place.

A middle-aged woman with a camera was the first to spot him. Two teenage girls arrived next, giggling. Then three Cub Scouts were swarming round him, demanding autographs - "First you have to say something." "Please?" "OK".

As the object of the Cubs' attention signed, one of them reached up to touch his watch. "Is that real gold?" he asked. "No," the man replied with a grin. "It's just painted to look like that." But it was real gold.

If anyone doubted that Linford Christie would retain his popular appeal after quitting the track, this informal demonstration served as well as anything else to lay those doubts to rest. Not that Christie himself had any: "I think the thing with the public will stay with me," said the former Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth 100 metres champion. "I have been nice to adults and children all through my career."

This week marks the anniversary of the sudden decision by Britain's greatest sprinter to end that career. At 38, one year into the rest of his life, Christie finds himself busier than he has ever been.

The management company he founded with fellow athlete Colin Jackson, Nuff Respect, is taking up increasing amounts of his time, despite the fact that Jackson has now left - something which hurt and baffled Christie in equal measure. Recently, he has begun recording a new television series of Record Breakers, which is now known as Linford Christie's Record Breakers.

He still trains with and coaches a small group of athletes, three of whom - Darren Campbell, Paul Gray and Katherine Merry - provided him with cause for celebration last weekend as they won AAA titles. And as he watched over his charges from the stand, Christie had a younger dependant to consider in the form of his 18-month-old daughter, Briannah.

He was relaxed. And when his athletes won, he was exuberant. It made a pleasant contrast to the matters which had so publicly preoccupied him earlier in the month.

For many outside the sport, the predominant recent image of Christie was that of a man weeping in the High Court witness box in the course of his successful libel action against a magazine article, written by the former prisoner John McVicar, which accused him of drug abuse.

A case that had taken three years to come to court gripped Christie with an emotional force he could not have foreseen: "For me it was a shock," he said. "I sat there and it was put to me that I was definitely a cheat. Not even possibly, but definitely. And they said my coach, Ron Roddan, had cheated because he had helped me to get the drug I was accused of taking.

"That's the part that got me emotional, because Ron is the most honest human person you can ever meet. I can defend myself. But what has Ron ever done to anybody? He gave up a lot of his time to help me achieve something, to give people someone to cheer on. Even people like John McVicar. I go out there to make him feel good about himself."

The argument that it was never worth his while embroiling himself in a traumatic, mud-slinging court case over an article written by a convicted felon in an obscure, and now defunct, magazine is one he acknowledges - but rejects.

"I don't regret taking the action," he said. "I would do it again exactly the same. If someone wants to think I was on drugs, well they can think what they like. But if someone writes it, I don't care if it was in a one-page magazine and only one person read it. Because it could be the wrong one person. It could be a kid who has admired what I have done and wondered about whether they could do the same thing. And then they read I'm on drugs. I have got to correct that.

"I felt I was in a Catch-22 situation. If I didn't defend myself against what McVicar had written, maybe people would have said: `He isn't defending it. Maybe it's true.'

"It was said in court that every single athlete is on drugs. That is totally wrong. I have been fighting for the good of the sport as well, because if it's thought that someone who was at the top of the sport like myself had taken drugs, the sponsors are going to say `Let's get out of the sport, because you obviously can't win anything unless you are on drugs'."

For all that, Christie felt let down by various parts of the sport during his case. He is still clearly angry at those members of the media who he feels have been ready to help McVicar's cause. And he also felt a distinct lack of encouragement from those within the sporting establishment.

"I felt I could have done with a lot more by way of phone calls or encouragement," he said. "I felt as if some people in the sport got scared, sat on the fence and waited, although a lot of the athletes were great. Because they knew. I wasn't worried about the case, because I knew there was no way that you could find 12 people who would say `Yes, I was on drugs.' I knew there's not a man alive or dead who could have said `Yes, I've given Linford Christie drugs, yes, I've seen him taking drugs.' I just wanted to get the message out there that I will not tolerate anybody who tries to take my reputation away, especially in that way. And I only take people to court when I know I am going to win." Winning was something that Christie made a habit of when he was competing.

But the growing pressure of expectation caused him to consider retiring years before he actually made his sudden announcement midway through last year's World Championships in Athens, where he was present as a BBC analyser.

He had begun the season by saying his international career would not stretch beyond the European Cup in June - where he led Britain to their first win since 1989, when he had been summarily appointed captain to receive the trophy.

"I just felt this horrible pressure that's put on British athletes," he said. "For some of my rivals, particularly the Americans, it was different. They were allowed to lose one or two races, to experiment from time to time. But for me it always had to be `win, win, win'."

You suspect, however, that that imperative came from within. And the template is still there.

"Anything I do in my life is based on what I did in athletics," he said. "I put 100 per cent into everything I do." That attitude caused problems when it came to guiding the fortunes of younger athletes. Just as England's World Cup winner Alan Ball found it hard to come to terms with young footballers who could not match his own commitment when he graduated to management, Christie - who for years trained six, sometimes seven days a week - had to adjust.

"I realised that because I had done it, I shouldn't necessarily expect it of them," he said. "Because everyone's an individual."

Christie will not admit to feeling any pangs of regret since giving up his track career. He maintains that he is fully detached from his old calling, but it looks more like semi-detachment. "When I watch the guys I'm like a boxer who sees an old sparring partner becoming heavyweight champion. You always believe that because you used to knock them around, then if they can do it, you can do it."

He denies being tempted to resume his career, but still talks wistfully about last season's scrapped plans to run in Britain for his team, Thames Valley Harriers: "If my club needed me to run, I would," Christie said. At the moment, the best young British 100m runners are running more than three-tenths of a second outside Christie's best of 9.87sec - a country mile in sprinting terms.

However, should one of them surpass the great man's best some time in the future, Christie said he would be delighted. "Especially if it is Darren," he added. "Records are meant to be broken, and hopefully someone will run faster than 9.87. It will be great for the sport. The stands will be full again.

"People will come out and say, `we want to watch this runner'. But the problem is that people are pressurising the young guys by saying they have to be the new Linford Christie. And they are pressurising themselves. The more they try to be like me, the more tight they are going to become.

"So the message to them has to be to go out and do what they have to do. And forget me."

It's a point of view. But try telling that to the Cub Scouts.