Athletics: Hollow ringed circus

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ON THE simple basis that sports writers are sometimes entitled to wield cynicism like a whip, the proposed race between Linford Christie and Carl Lewis in Tokyo strikes me as a promotional get-up that would have warmed Phineas T Barnum's heart.

The story so far, one wholly in keeping with the commercial turmoil of modern sport, is that Christie, the Olympic champion at 100 metres, and Lewis, the world record-holder, will split dollars 250,000 ( pounds 125,000) for attempting to prove which is the better man.

Doubtless there are those of an enthusiastic, indeed a sympathetic turn who think this to be a highly laudable endeavour, and of great consequence in the world of athletics.

The point, it seems here, is that superiority cannot be convincingly established in such circumstances. Whoever wins, and assuming that no record is set, Christie will still be the Olympic champion, and Lewis the fastest human.

As to the metaphorical supposition that a hush will fall upon the world during the brief advance of time Christie and Lewis take to travel 100 metres in the Orient, who really cares?

It can be assumed without fear of contradiction that the Japanese do. Perhaps on the basis that nature denied them the physical stature to succeed in some forms of sporting endeavour, they appear to have developed an insatiable passion for feats performed by extremely large pugilists and blindingly swift sprinters.

Considering that Mike Tyson was knocked out in Tokyo when losing the heavyweight championship to James 'Buster' Douglas, two and a half years ago, this can be thought of as a consuming interest in the quick and the dead, but that is to steer away from the point.

What we are talking about here is the exploitation of prowess as immediately imagined in Barcelona when Christie, in his 32nd year, heroically galloped to a gold medal, running the legs off a field that did not include Lewis, who astonishingly failed to qualify in the United States Olympic trials. 'Carl wasn't here. This is my night,' Christie said. 'I'm in no hurry to race him.'

Now it is September and, as ever, money talks in sport.

There is nothing remotely wrong with the notion of legitimately making capital out of talent and fame, but Christie versus Lewis in Tokyo does not carry the healthiest incentive, which is to prove best in the healthiest circumstances.

Christie versus Lewis in the Olympic Games would have been a prospect to quicken the pulse and stir the blood. It would have been Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. Brazil against England in the Mexico World Cup of 1970. Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett in the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.

Christie versus Lewis in Tokyo is merely playing around with fame for profit, expressing a curious form of reasoning on the part of athletics promoters who have prospered on the fallible belief that the public are impulsively generous.

Until now nobody has raised a murmur. If there had been any comment, it would have been praise for bringing the circus to town, never mind that it is quite impossible for athletes always to be at their best when committing themselves to such a demanding routine. Now there is a suspicion that the bubble has burst.

According to reports of the most reliable nature it seems that in future, certainly by next year, athletes will be required to produce at grand prix meetings. In other words, less for showing up, more for performing well.

To be sure this may startle and confuse some of the hired hands and their advisers, yet the future would be better and brighter in sport if they acknowledged that there is a limit to the public's indulgence.

As emphasised at The Belfry last week when six Europeans, among the finest players in golf, did not put in an appearance at the English Open championship, appearance money remains a thorny issue.

The leading golfers today are extremely well rewarded and scrupulously well cared for, for the overwhelmingly important reason that they are precious to the promoters and sponsors.

If they are ungrateful, a good question is how they got that way.

Probably because they have been persuaded to believe that the public will keep on coming, no matter what. This is backward thinking on their part, a short cut to recession in sport.

As for an old-fashioned sentiment, commitment to the customer, that does not appear to figure prominently in the minds of some promoters. Sport? What does that have to do with profit?