Athletics: Christie to bide his time: Burrell's manager plays fast and loose as the world awaits head-on contest of top sprinters: Norman Fox explains why a date at the Palace is a non-starter

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The Independent Online
A HEAD-TO-HEAD contest in Britain between the new fastest man in the world, Leroy Burrell, and the Olympic and world champion, Linford Christie, is being planned for 4 September at the McDonalds Games in Sheffield, but it will only take place if Burrell's manager, Joe Douglas, stops insisting that promoters have to invite the whole American Santa Monica travelling 'circus' at a cost of pounds 200,000.

British Athletic Federation officials have virtually abandoned any hope of bringing Burrell and the former record holder Carl Lewis to Crystal Palace for the TSB Games next Friday, and Christie says there is no way he will face Burrell before the Goodwill Games in St Petersburg later this month. Tony Ward, speaking for the BAF yesterday, said: 'We agreed with Linford that we were not going to have our agenda dictated by an American manager. Linford's season is totally different from the Americans' and we were not going to be frog-marched into an early confrontation. We will look at a possible Burrell-Christie clash probably at the Sheffield meeting, but we will not be forced to take the whole Santa Monica package. If we had brought them all to Crystal Palace at a cost of pounds 200,000 what would the rest of the sport have said to us at a time when budgets are tight.'

Burrell said yesterday it would have cost the British federation no more to persuade him to run at Crystal Palace than it would had they wanted him before he reduced the world record to 9.85sec in Lausanne last Wednesday. This conflicts with what he said on Tuesday when he flew into Switzerland from Houston and in spite of not running a competitive race for a month, suggested to Douglas that any negotiations about running in London should wait until later in the week. His excited, immediate reaction after the record run was that he would be prepared to race against Christie 'for nothing'. For a moment Douglas, the Santa Monica Track Club manager and agent, was in a cold sweat, but Burrell's rush of blood to a normally cool head lasted barely longer than it takes him to complete 100 metres. Douglas quickly put him straight about the facts of modern athletics life as he sees them - a price for each according to his achievements and a higher one for taking on the whole Santa Monica troupe of half a dozen or more.

Douglas said: 'We were keen for Leroy to run in London even before he broke the world record, but the British people have to take the whole package, or nothing.' That package, of course, includes the declining former multi-Olympic gold medal winner Lewis who still has an asking price of dollars 100,000 a race (which the Lausanne promoters refused to pay), compared with Christie's reported maximum of dollars 50,000. Burrell himself said: 'When you're on top like I am at this moment, you want to take on someone like Linford Christie and the money doesn't seem that important. He's been at the top for a long time. I don't believe he's trying to duck a race against me. He's got his own plans for the season, but I reckon he's under pressure not to run against me until the Goodwill Games.'

Whether or not it would have been wise for Christie to change his plans and run at Crystal Palace, or even whether he is in a position to get out of the Turner Communications contractual commitments to avoid the Americans until the season's most important international event in St Petersburg later this month, he may think this would be a bad moment to risk defeat at the feet of a man who had told his coach back in February that this would be his year.

Although delayed slightly by the quick firing of the starting gun at the Linz meeting last Monday - and as a result being excused his defeat by Davidson Ezinwa, of Nigeria - Christie is showing signs of having reached his peak too early and perhaps he will have to pay a high price for running too often. His running of the 100 yards in Edinburgh on Friday seemed an unnecessary diversion, but at least he looked sleek and started better for a time that was nine-hundredths of a second outside the 26-year-old world record of 9.21. He knows that Burrell's start in Lausanne was also slow yet he recovered dramatically from being fourth after 20 metres and with a quicker move off the blocks looks capable of improving even on the latest record. Nevertheless, Christie's intense competitive nature is going to make their clashes this summer the highlights of the season.

There is no love lost between them. Christie's frequent suggestions that the Americans can never take defeat gracefully invites their angry criticism since his reaction to Burrell's world record seemed churlish. Christie remarked that titles meant more to him than records. Back in 1991 at Cosford he was furious when Burrell not only beat him indoors over 60 metres but in full flight glanced back sneeringly at the champion.

What irks Burrell at the moment is that this season, as in 1990 when he was last ranked as the world's No 1, there are no Olympic or world championship titles to be won. And though Christie won his Olympic title when 32 years old, Burrell, who is 27, is probably thinking that by the next Olympics he may no longer be top man.

At least by then he should finally have pushed Lewis into the wings. For years he seems to have shadowed the great man. They both ran for the University of Houston, they both studied communications, they have strong religious backgrounds, and both can talk the hind leg off a donkey. The big difference is that Lewis, like Christie, has gold medals.

Burrell came fairly late into athletics after an unsuccessful attempt to make a career in baseball. The story goes that he gave up because of limited vision in his right eye, but he tends not to make that an excuse for failing to hit the ball often enough and far enough. This year the injuries that have cost him medals in the big championships seem to have been healed and in April he ran a slightly wind-assisted 9.86sec, exactly equal to Lewis's record. Clearly his time has come, but on the clock rather than in what for him is an unhelpful calendar of major championships, and that irks him terribly.

(Photographs omitted)