Christie must find his perfect ending

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The Independent Online
Somebody needs to have a word with Linford Christie, and I don't mean in the way a couple of Metropolitan policemen did several years ago. No, this has to come from somebody he trusts and whose judgement he respects, which almost certainly rules out the majority of British sports journalists with whom he has crossed swords during his career. But even though he won't seek our opinion we can act as a conduit for popular sentiment, and what seems to be the message is that it really is time for him to let go.

Last Monday night at Gateshead, Christie's presence at the meeting drew a 10,000 strong crowd, who were there not just in anticipation of seeing the greatest British sprinter of the modern age, but also because they believed they were witnessing Christie's last international appearance after his post-Atlanta verdict that "all good things must come to an end". But after finishing second to John Regis in the 200 metres, Christie withdrew from a 100m showdown with the Olympic champion, Donovan Bailey, due to a knee injury. We don't know what was going through Christie's mind, but perhaps this most perfectionist of athletes couldn't face going out on a note of such bathos.

So like all good troupers, he began casting around for a more fitting finale, nominating next year's Europa Cup in Munich, or even the World Championships in Athens, and the international retirement was on hold again. Now Christie's reservoir of self-belief may be constantly full, but I suspect that the one which holds the goodwill of his British supporters is beginning to run on empty.

All through last winter Christie had teased us about whether he would run in the Atlanta Games or not. If it was a genuine reflection of his anxieties then it was probably fair game to play with our expectations, but I suspect that he knew all along that, barring injury, he would compete and defend the Olympic 100m title he had won so brilliantly in Barcelona. Every modern athlete tests positive for a substance called vanity, but Christie had more justification for it than most. For, having taken the Olympic gold in 1992, Christie had also completed the set, at one point holding Commonwealth, European and World titles. Hindsight would probably tell him now that a retirement then would have been the right decision.

But a belief in his own form, and Christie's unabashed patriotism drove him on. He was injured in the World Championship 100m final in Gothenburg last year, writhing on the track while medics smashed ice-packs open to wrap around his hamstring. It was a sufficiently dramatic incident to take the cameras off Bailey, the winner who for a while believed that Christie had faked the injury to take away the stigma of being beaten. Bailey has now withdrawn that allegation, such is the serenity that an Olympic title brings, but there were others, both athletes and Press, who believed that Christie's double false start and disqualification in Atlanta was another example of him engineering his own alibi after realising that he couldn't possibly win.

On face value it doesn't seem very plausible, although a cynic might stitch together the Gothenburg, Atlanta and Gateshead incidents and see a suspicious pattern and perhaps even an alternative reading of Pierre de Coubertin's catchphrase: "It's not the losing that counts but the way that you don't take part." But from what I saw on the television on that sultry Saturday night it was not a man copping out of confrontation but one so wired up by the challenge and the fear of losing, that he was stretching every limit. Christie's first false start looked like an explosion of nervous tension. He must have known that if he was to beat Frankie Fredericks, Bailey and Ato Boldon, he would need his best ever start.

So the second false start seemed to me like an inspired gamble, counting down the fractions of the starter's hold, trying to guess his psychology, maybe even supernaturally sensing the first pressure of the finger on the trigger. And it nearly worked - Christie's rise looked simply like a great start when shown in real time. Only on the slow motion replay, and on the sensor pads built into the blocks, could Christie's offence be detected.

What happened then was the stuff of nightmares. Yes, as a professional, he should have bitten the invisible bullet and walked away. Instead Christie, wracked by a sickening feeling of anti-climax begged for reinstatement, for a second ruling on his start. But there was no reprieve. He took the red disk away from his lane marker like Lady Macbeth wishing away her "damned spot". He was escorted away down a dark tunnel, and then broke clear trying to reach the stage that had been denied him. And then, most cringingly of all, he ran a bare-chested 100m of honour while all eyes were on the winner.

Even those of us who have done little more than run for a bus after closing time will nevertheless know something of his final feeling. The nearest I can come up with is that moment in a disco when the girl you have targeted for a dance walks away as you approach. You then have to decide whether to stay and pretend it hasn't happened, or shuffle your way back into the darkness as defiantly as you can. Whatever, the humiliation burns inside you, and you can't wait to get back one day and win the girl over.

Last week another of our 1992 Olympic champions, Sally Gunnell, who pulled up injured in her 400m hurdles in Atlanta, was articulating some of the agony of doubt about her own retirement. "If I quit now people will remember me for what happened at Atlanta, not for my achievements," she is reported as saying. And I bet that is exactly what Christie has been thinking too.

But Gunnell and Christie are wrong. Their achievements can never be wiped away; they are registered in the record books, in video libraries and, most importantly, in the memories of the people. They also have great futures ahead of them as national coaches or media commentators. But by persisting in a belief that he can defy time and younger challengers, Christie risks taking himself further away from our affections.

If he wants one last showcase for himself, as Sebastian Coe effortlessly orchestrated in September 1989 at Crystal Palace, then the British Athletics Federation and Christie's own commercial sponsors should be able to organise a definitive testimonial, his own invitation meeting, and turn it into a final farewell where both the athlete and his fans can see the finishing line.

Kenny Dalglish may be leaving Blackburn Rovers to spend more time with his golf clubs, but he looks an unlikely type for the early pension. He's certainly wealthy enough not to worry about nine-to-fiving anymore but in the context of a mega-rich Premiership and hyper-active club chairman, Dalglish's theoretical ability will have every Premiership manager cutting himself shaving.

For they know that he has an outstanding record, as a player, a player- manager, and as a manager outright, given his championships with Celtic, Liverpool and Blackburn. They also know that he would be unlikely to move abroad. Above all, they know that his clipped, opaque Glaswegian observations rule out any possibility of a media career. So Dalglish's golf club will be taking a lot of strange calls, just to check that he's there.

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