Christie may be quickest in most things but he was not the first to exploit the commercial potential of endorsable skin space

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The sight of Linford Christie just after he had won the 100 metres in Zurich on Wednesday night made instructive viewing. Not so much for the magnificent haughtiness of his expression, a look intended to wither critics - real and imagined - at thirty paces. Not so much either for the splendidness of his physique, fully visible once he had stripped off his running shirt to reveal a set of pectorals which seem to defy the processes of age that afflict the rest of us. No, the incredible thing was that spreading across the gleaming vastness that was his bared chest could be seen a large, white and very prominent Puma logo. Loud and proud, it said: I belong - heart, soul and the space above my left nipple - to my sponsor.

What a brilliant way to make a bit of extra cash. Up until now, tattoos were a personal declaration of affiliation which cost the wearer money. Representatives of the Chinese Communist party, you imagine, did not pay Mike Tyson to display the image of Chairman Mao on his bicep in this evening's comeback fight, any more than Mr and Mrs Jones forked out to have young Vinny wear "Mum and Dad" on his arm throughout his playing career.

Eric Cantona missed a trick by having Chief Sitting Bull on his chest instead of, say, the face of the marketing director of Nike, and that poor Newcastle fan who had Andy Cole tattooed on his thigh two days before the player was transferred to Manchester United was clearly not party to any inside negotiations (Cole's recent suggestion, incidentally, that the man could get it changed to Les Ferdinand with a flick of the tattooist's needle can have been of little comfort).

As Linford thrust his chest in the direction of the cameras like Liz McColgan used to do with her running shoes every time she won a race, it occurred to me what happens if, in the manner of a sailor who finds himself ditched by Sheila three days after he has had her name forever embossed on his backside, our athletics' hero decided to terminate his contract with Puma and take up with Adidas instead? Hours of uncomfortable needlepoint would ensue, odd bare patches of skin would appear, he'd have to engage the services of Michael Jackson's dermatologist.

Clearly Linford, never slow at working out commercial ramifications, had thought of that. It transpired, representatives of the company were quick to point out, that the leaping white Puma was merely a temporary transfer, not a tattoo. Presumably ink in the bloodstream would show up positive on the random drug test. Also, though Christie may beat his contemporaries in most things - 100m races, the sprint to be a grandparent, the battle for his bank manager's affection - he was not the first to exploit the commercial potential of endorsable skin space. During the World Championships in Gothenburg, a couple of American 400m runners appeared on the final bend with Reebok on their shoulders, a device which neatly circumvented the onerous restrictions on wearing endorsements on clothing. Not a patch though, on our Linford, a man of real style.

Now that he has made the fashion running, there is plenty more of Linford to sell: hair sculpted into the shape of a Lucozade bottle, for instance, or teeth capped to spell out Ford Cargo every time he smiles. And the lead his has set will clearly be taken up by other sportsmen. During the Calcutta Cup, Brian Moore could have Scottish Amicable written across his forehead, and when England play Wales, Dewi Morris might get the old Welsh Development Agency logo "Made In Wales" tattooed on his calfs.

In cricket, Imran Khan could make a comeback with the back of his hair shaved to look like a Coca Cola bottle top and Kenny Benjamin, already burdened down by enough gold jewellery to keep the South African economy solvent for a year, might attempt to remove the teeth of the English batting while wearing a pair of Ratner's ear-rings. Craig White, in the meantime, is in the best position of all: he need only carry on as he is to show he is sponsored by Vanish.

Football, too, is awash with possibility for shrewd endorsement. Every time Duncan Ferguson scores and whips off his shirt, there is an advertising hoarding's worth of flesh revealed: space for a firm of Glasgow solicitors, perhaps, to display their emergency legal aid help-line number. If only Cole - destined to score at least 30 times this season - could be persuaded to adopt a similar goal celebration, his sponsors would be purring. And in Turkey, Graeme Souness could have Kaliber non-alcoholic lager scrawled across his finger, neatly visible whenever he jabs instructions at Mike Marsh or Barry Venison.

But, if the idea takes off and sportsmen's skin begins to resemble Damon Hill's overalls, spare a thought for poor old Duncan Goodhew. He must be cursing the fact he was a champion swimmer a generation too early: hectares of unique potential gone to waste.