Athletics: Hard bargains on the track of gold: International athletics is as much about cash and sports cars as it is about winning, and promoters are both power brokers and paymasters. Richard Williams saw the circus come to Crystal Palace

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The Independent Online
THIS FRIDAY, Linford Christie and Carl Lewis meet to decide which of them can run a hundred metres faster than the other. A cynic would suggest that we already know the answer to that. The records say that of their 13 previous meetings, Lewis has won 12. But Christie's victory at the Olympic Games in Barcelona last year, in the absence of Lewis, made a 14th confrontation inevitable. So on Friday they have a rendezvous on the track at Gateshead, in the north-east of England. Win or lose, the two men will share a purse of about pounds 200,000.

And yet, less than a month later, all things being equal, the same two are scheduled to meet again, in the world championships at Stuttgart. There, the winner will get a top-of-the-range Mercedes-Benz to go with his gold medal. The runner-up will get a silver medal, and that's all. No smaller car; not even a Volkswagen. And, to the athletes' chagrin, certainly no cash.

Which is why their showdown will be taking place not at a major athletics meeting in an international stadium, but in the slightly less glamorous surroundings of Tyneside. After a year of stand-offs, of elaborate tap-dancing, of let's-do-lunch flirting, of not quite managing to synchronise their agents' Filofaxes, of pipe-dreams of head-to- head satellite-TV bonanzas in the Nevada desert, the Olympic champion and the world record holder have suddenly woken up and realised that time is running out on their big payday.

If they don't run against each other in the next three weeks, for whatever money can be raised, they're faced with the prospect of running against each other for nothing. Nothing, anyway, more than honour, the title of world champion, and a winner-take-all Mercedes. Which, in the sport of track and field in the 1990s, is nothing like enough. After all, someone who wins a world championship probably doesn't need another Mercedes-Benz. A guy like Linford Christie probably has two in the garage already.

So what did they do? They talked to Andy Norman, of course; to the man who most clearly embodies the conflicts and complications now built into the simplest and most straight-forward of sports.

WHEN he'd come back from silencing the alarm on his K-reg Mercedes saloon in the car park of a south London hotel, the most powerful man in British athletics - a man whose friends admit he has more enemies than friends - started telling me about the 1,500 metres race he'd planned for the next night's meeting at Crystal Palace.

'The 1,500 is about Matthew Yates and Steve Cram trying to qualify for the world championships,' Andy Norman said. 'So I've got a pacemaker for them. He's a guy called Lewis Johnson. Black guy, lives in Paris. Part of the NBC Television team at the Open down at Sandwich, funnily enough. Travels around to all the major golf tournaments with them, apparently.'

And what are such people paid?

'Peanuts. Well, dollars 1,500, maybe dollars 1,200. Some of the meetings pay unbelievable sums, though.'

At Oslo two weeks earlier, he mentioned by way of illustration, a runner had been offered dollars 8,000 to help with the pace in Yobes Ondieki's successful attempt on the 10,000 metres record.

'But I don't use pacemakers for record purposes,' Andy Norman said, adding that in any case Crystal Palace wasn't such a good place for world records on the track. 'Either they're freezing their balls off or the wind's blowing their heads off up the back straight. Usually a pacemaker is there just to move it along.'

If there hadn't been a qualifying problem for Cram and Yates, he added, he'd have put in a pacemaker anyway, to take the field through the first couple of laps, 'so that we'd get a reasonable race.'

Had Cram and Yates asked him for a pacemaker?

'No. They assume I'll find one.'

And how would the pacemaker get his instructions?

'It's up to them. They tell him what they want. Then one of them says, you tell him, Crammy, and the other says, you tell him, Yatesy. So one tells him one thing and the other one tells him another, and . . .'

And Andy Norman, the 49-year-old promotions director of the British Athletic Federation, the former Kent policeman whose influence over his sport is the stuff of writ and legend, looked out of the window at the green Mercedes and laughed his short, unamused laugh.

IT WORKED. Steve Cram was injured and didn't show up for the TSB Games at Crystal Palace on Friday evening, delaying his attempt to qualify for the world championships until the Gateshead meeting, but Lewis Johnson did his job anyway, picking up the tempo at 800 metres when the first pacemaker, Stanley Redwine, another American, pulled off the track. Johnson took the field through 1,100 metres before easing over the perimeter, his job done. Yates squeezed home in the same hundredth of a second as one of his rivals, but the important thing was that his time, 3min 35.83sec, was more than half a second inside the target. Yates would be going to Stuttgart. An assisted passage, you might say.

There were several other examples of pacemaking on view at the National Sports Centre on Friday, sometimes when there seemed to be nothing more at stake than the result of the race itself. Two Kenyans, Charles Cheruiyot and Joseph Chesire, made the running in the men's 5,000 metres, each towing the field for 1,000 metres before leaving the way open for their compatriot William Sigei to come home ahead of three Ethiopians. In the women's 800 metres, Paula Fryer, a British runner, set the tempo, pulling out at the bell to let another British woman, Kelly Holmes, through to win. Lewis Johnson, doing double duty, took the pace for three-quarters of the men's 800, won by the Brazilian, Jose Luis Barbosa. Gwen Griffiths, a South African, paced Yvonne Murray in the women's 3,000 metres. There may have been others, less obvious.

Nobody bothers to deny their presence. After all, the first athletics memory of any baby-boomer is probably the black and white newsreel of Brasher and Chataway setting up Bannister for the four-minute mile, which seemed as fine and sporting an achievement as any you could imagine. But that was a record attempt, pure and simple. What happens now is that pacemakers turn up in straight races, and sometimes even in championships, which doesn't seem to be quite playing the game.

'Pacemaking isn't in the rules,' says John Bicourt, a former Olympic steeplechaser who is now an athletes' agent. 'But if you want a fast race . . . and sometimes it's the only way an athlete can get into the race. I've got some pacemakers on my books, and it makes

them a living. No harm in that. But I don't like it in championship events. That's wrong. Otherwise I don't really think it's detrimental. Sometimes deals are struck with athletes to sacrifice themselves. There were some pacemakers even in our national championships last weekend. And not everyone knew they were there. They were there for certain individuals.'

Still, on an evening when a light breeze blowing down the finishing

straight barely moved the thick air, making it hard to lift a telephone, never mind run 100 metres in even time, Crystal Palace hosted a very satisfying event. A near-capacity crowd of 20,000 enjoyed wins by the local heroes Linford Christie, Sally Gunnell and Colin Jackson, and by the foreign stars Quincy Watts, Javier Sotomayor and Jan Zelezny. There was a brave return by Steve Backley, and a major upset in the 400 metres hurdles when Kevin

Young, the Olympic champion, lost on the line to Samuel Matete.

That last event took place despite the meeting's best-publicised absence. Kriss Akabusi, the European quarter- mile hurdles champion, now in the closing weeks of his retirement season after a long and illustrious career, had announced earlier in the week that he wouldn't be running. Andy Norman, he said, had failed to answer his request for an entry. At least, for an entry on terms that would give him a chance of winning the race, and bowing out in front of his home crowd with laurels around his neck. 'I didn't want to be waving to my home crowd from the back of the field,' he told the Daily Mail, which headlined the story: 'Akabusi denied lap of honour'.

'It's not my role to put on benefit races for Kriss Akabusi,' Norman told me, beginning a short monologue which revealed both his own relationship with some British athletes and something of the way athletics is run. 'His manager said he wanted a race which Akabusi could win to say goodbye to the crowd. I said, I've got Kevin Young available. I've got to produce stars. It's my job to put on a meeting that the TV is going to want to renew our contract from. He didn't want Young in the race, he didn't want Matete in the race. What can I do? I understand what he's saying. It's good for his image. But not in a Grand Prix meeting. If Young and Matete hadn't been available, we'd have been down to the level of getting rid of the guy from the Ukraine who beat him in the European Cup.' Again, that humour-free laugh.

For his part, Akabusi told me that Norman's attitude had come as no surprise. 'I've had my day,' he said. 'I know I'm not in my best shape, and I don't want to kid anybody. I just asked Andy to afford me the same thing he affords top foreign runners. But he'd got Kevin Young. I know that Andy is saving his money for the bigger clashes. Rather than paying me pounds 10,000, he can put it into something else.'

THIS sort of business, like the question of pacemaking, adds layers of complication to a sport whose beauty should be its irreducible simplicity. Curiously, for a sport that is only a few years away from the pretence of absolute simon-pure amateurism, the way athletics is organised - politically, commercially, and in the sporting sense - makes even something as Machiavellian as Formula One motor racing look like playtime in the nursery.

The Grand Prix series was started in 1985, as an attempt by the International Amateur Athletics Federation to impose a sense of order on the calendar. It was supposed to enable the casual spectator to follow a narrative throughout the season; it was intended to produce clear-cut winners. But athletics isn't like that. A sprinter's hamstring isn't as reliable as a racing car's internal organs, and the result is that the IAAF / Mobil Grand Prix series is still a sequence of individual events, each one promoted on the basis of the individual confrontations it contains.

The TSB Games at Crystal Palace last Friday was one of 16 rounds held this season, which began in Sao Paulo in May and will finish in Brussels in September. The athletes earn points in each event, and on 10 September the top points-scorers in each event will reconvene at Crystal Palace for the Grand Prix finals, at which they can win prizes ranging from dollars 30,000 for first place in each event to dollars 10,000 for eighth. There are also prizes for the highest overall points scorers: dollars 100,000 each for the top man and woman, who become a kind of Victor / Victoria Ludorum. That, at least, is the dream of the IAAF's president, Primo Nebiolo. But who were last year's Victor and Victoria? Not many people outside the sport would know that Kevin Young and Heike Dreschsler,

the German long-jumper, were officially the world's greatest athletes.

This year the situation has been further muddied by the decision of the four biggest meetings - at Zurich, Oslo, Brussels and Berlin - to negotiate their own collective TV package, and to offer a special prize on the side: the athlete who wins his or her event at all four meetings carries off a 1kg gold bar, worth about pounds 100,000. If there is more than one winner, the bar is shared. And that is why the quartet is calling itself the Golden Four.

'I can see a time when maybe it will be the Golden Six or Seven - and only those,' said Stuart McConachie, ITV's executive producer of athletics, who was looking after the live transmission from Crystal Palace on Friday, and whose company has paid dollars 6m for a five-year deal with the Golden Four. 'With the World Cups and European Cups, and with all the championships, there's too much pressure on the athletes - they can't run at every meeting. They can't make it fit with their training schedules. It's only the more obscure athletes who run the lot.'

Would London be among a Golden Six, say? A complicated points system rates the meetings according to the strength of the competition and the level of performance they attract, which is where Andy Norman and his special gifts come in. At the moment, London is ranked 10th of the 16. Norman points to his comparatively meagre budget - pounds 542,000, against pounds 1.8m for Zurich - and to Crystal Palace's lack of appeal to athletes in search of record times. In order to maintain the meeting's status - with the international athletics community, with TV, and with the people who actually buy the tickets - Norman must be impresario, scriptwriter and casting director.

Each event, in his eyes, must be have its plot and narrative. It must be 'about' somebody or something: Yates's qualification, Gunnell's homecoming, Backley's return from injury. It must satisfy the thirst of the British crowd for home success: 'In Oslo, they have 15,000 people cheering like hell for two Kenyans fighting it out. Imagine that here] There'd be dead silence. Our whole tradition is British success.' And, crucially, it must take account of TV's own pacing: 'They don't like beginning with a fast event, because of the false starts. They say if there's three false starts, people will switch off. And we try to start with a home win. Then you let it drop. Then pick it up again. Peaks and troughs.'

It can all go wrong, though. Say, a Phyllis Smith rings in with an unspecified injury on Thursday, thus removing the plot-line from the women's 400. A superstar like Sergey Bubka calls up to say that he hasn't managed to negotiate the visa-application process. Or a Linford Christie can nod off and get knocked out in his heat of the 200 metres, as happened at the AAA championships. 'Oh, Jesus Christ,' Norman said. 'The final was the last event. The TV came back for the Linford Christie Show, and where were you, you twit?'

In the impresario's voice, the anguish is still fresh. It reminds us that when we watch a simple foot race today, we may not be seeing what we think we see. Which is not Andy Norman's fault. Athletics, weirdly, has become the purest expression of market forces in all of sport. A bad thing, no doubt; but you might have a job telling that to an actual athlete, whether he's an Ethiopian pacemaker picking up a couple of hundred dollars or a champion from Santa Monica trying to figure out just how on earth he's going to get that extra Merc in the garage.

(Photograph omitted)

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