Christie opens treasure chest

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After the famous false starts in Atlanta we now have the false finish. Linford Christie, the most prolific gold medal prospector in British athletics history, has chosen to end his life in the international fast- lane not with the bang of one last shot at a major gong at the World Championships in Athens in August, but with a relative cruise to the finish line which awaits at the summer's end.

It was far from a stroll for the retiring though far from shy speed-merchant as he stepped on to the European circuit for the first time this season, in the Fanny Blankers-Koen Stadium in this sleepy Dutch town yesterday. It was a good job he was not caught napping on his blocks.

Christie needed every centimetre of the narrow lead he had built by the half-way stage of the 100m in the Adriaan Paulen Memorial meeting. He needed a bit more too. Only the counter-thrust he made with his chest as the line approached thwarted the fast-finishing Jamaican Michael Green. It still looked a close call, but Christie chose not to await the photo- finish verdict before embarking on a victory lap. Embarrassment was spared when his name appeared at the top of the result sheet.

Both men stopped the electronic timing at 10.23sec, but Christie won the judges' verdict over the man who was closest to him in the Olympic final, Green having finished seventh and last in the field depleted by the defending champion's disqualification. It was a sign of the changed times for Christie, though, that he was even in Hengelo for what was strictly a sideshow race in a second- ranking grand prix meeting.

There was a time when no contest intended to decide the identity of the world's fastest man would have excluded the great Briton. But the nearest he could get to a tilt at Donovan Bailey, the man who took his Olympic title last summer, was the nominal challenge of facing Glenroy Gilbert, who ran the second leg in the Canadian 4 x 100m relay team Bailey anchored to victory in Atlanta. However, there was no golden glint to Gilbert's form yesterday. He finished eighth and last in a distinctly rusty 10.66sec.

Judgement will have to be deferred on whether Christie will prove true to his word - or, rather, the ones he chose five weeks ago to explain why, at 37, his major championship days are over. "I don't have the fire to go out and destroy the opposition like I used," he said. "I just want to enjoy myself and not take athletics too seriously."

The trouble is he will need a measure of the old fire in his belly and a fair degree of the old scorching fleetness in his feet when he runs in Munich on 21 June. Having chosen the European Cup as his final fling in a Great Britain vest, and as captain of the men's team, Christie will not want to bow out with his particular Union Jack fluttering at half- mast.

Since his winning debut in Moscow in 1985, he has made the European Cup 100m race a non-contest. Another victory in the Olympic Stadium in three weeks would be his eighth in succession. And despite his winning run yesterday, it is unlikely to prove a formality.

The only procession Christie led with comfortable clarity was the parade of champions which opened the event. He was first into the arena to be presented to the legend who gave her name to this track. Fanny Blankers- Koen, who struck gold four times at the 1948 Olympic Games, is still going strong at 79.