Athletics: Christie leaves amid rumblings

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The Independent Online
Half an hour after the last event of yesterday's rain-swept Performance Games, a shrill group of children squashed down to the front of the otherwise empty main stand to get Linford Christie's autograph after his final appearance in this stadium.

Such youthful enthusiasm is precious to the sport, but many more meetings like this, and that spark of interest is in danger of being snuffed out in the post-Christie years.

The first domestic competition after major summer championships traditionally offers Britain's returning medallists the opportunity of a "fly-past". This was more of a shuffle-past.

At the post-Olympic meeting in Sheffield four years ago, the demand for tickets was such that touts were in evidence outside the Don Valley Stadium. Yesterday's events - despite the presence of all five individual Olympic medallists - were witnessed by a crowd of 6,000, barely a third of the stadium's capacity.

Part of the reason for that may have been the lack of an Olympic gold medallist on whom to focus attention. Part of it may have been the timing - Tony Ward, the British Athletic Federation spokesman, said that the meeting may, in retrospect, have been staged too soon after the Games.

The performers, with the notable exceptions of Tony Jarrett, Mark Richardson and Ashia Hansen, who broke her own British and Commonwealth triple jump record, were weary. Miserable weather also contributed to an underwhelming afternoon where there were too many rarely run events and too few meaningful competitions.

Among the most trenchant critics of yesterday's offering was Richardson, who won the 300 metres in 32.14 sec ahead of his three fellow silver medalists in the 400m relay.

Richardson, who failed to gain an individual 400m place in Atlanta after food poisoning had undermined his preparation for the Olympic trials, said he would have preferred to run a full 400 to capitalise on his present form, which is good enough to raise the prospect of breaking Roger Black's British record.

But this articulate sports science graduate was more concerned with the wider picture. "There's got to be some drastic action if athletics isn't going to continue to slide, " he said. He suggested that the promotion of meetings should be taken out of the BAF's hands and put out to private tender.

"I have seen nothing about this meeting since I got home from Atlanta," he said. "Even though we haven't got any gold medals, there are some great characters and performers in British athletics. But the sport has to be promoted to the max.

"I was told that 3 million people stayed up until 2.40 in the morning to watch our relay on TV, so there is an interest out there. But it's a latent demand and we have got to go out and make these meetings apparent to people."

His concerns were echoed by Hansen, who put her performance in adding a centimetre to her British record of 14.66 down to the fact that she was more relaxed here after the strain of Olympic competition. "It just seems to be getting smaller and smaller," she said. "If there are no crowds, there will be no athletics."

Of the medallists who turned out yesterday, only Jonathan Edwards and Steve Backley won, although their winning marks in the triple jump and the javelin, 16.93m and 82.10m respectively, were well down on their season's best.

Christie marked his final appearance here in a 150m race which began to an accompanying rumble of thunder - a stormy end to a stormy career - and finished with him winning in 15.08sec.

As one former Olympic champion moves towards the exit, another, the 1984 javelin gold medallist Tessa Sanderson is lingering. Having returned to the sport this year at the age of 40 in an effort to raise pounds 1m for a children's charity, Sanderson - second to Karen Forkel yesterday with 61.24m - has decided to go on competing for another season.

Tony Jarrett, whose Olympics ended with a heavy fall in the second round of the 110m hurdles, gained a measure of recompense in defeating a field including the Olympic champion, Allen Johnson, and Britain's world record holder, Colin Jackson. The latter pair, however, had flown back yesterday morning after competing in Saturday's Monaco Grand Prix.

Roger Black and Iwan Thomas, beaten on the day by Richardson, have a grand prix appointment in Zurich on Wednesday, but whether they will compete against the Olympic champion, Michael Johnson, is open to doubt after reports of a financial dispute. Johnson is said to have asked for $100,000 (pounds 65,000) to run. The Cologne meeting on Friday has dropped its one-lap event - Johnson is too expensive, a spokesman said - and the Zurich organisers, despite a $6m budget, are also balking.

However, Johnson's agent, Brad Hunt, has said the only factor involved is the hamstring injury his man incurred in setting the world 200m record.

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