Christie's crowning achievement

Spurred on by public support at a time when he was considering retirement, the finest sprinter Britain has produced took one last shot at the greatest prize. At the age of 32 in Barcelona, he became the oldest Olympic 100 metres champion of all time. This is Ken Jones' account of 9.96sec of glory
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The Independent Online
When all the successes and failures have been fed through a computer and reduced to columns of type, thoughtful historians may conclude that the XXV Olympiad was perhaps most notable for one man's triumph over the relentless passage of time.

It waits for no athlete, but in Barcelona on Saturday it slowed respectfully to a crawl for Linford Christie who became, at 32, the oldest winner of the Olympic 100 metres, conceding eight years to Frankie Fredericks and Dennis Mitchell, the silver and bronze medallists. "Their chance will come again," Christie said when addressing a small army of perspiring interrogators in the bowels of the Estadio Olimpico.

Christie's chances of completely fulfilling the exciting potential that first came to light in a junior championship in 1978, dramatically improved almost exactly a month ago when Carl Lewis, the world record holder, suffering the effects of a virus, failed to make the United States sprint team for Barcelona after finishing sixth in the trials.

If privately acknowledging that a fully-fit Lewis would have been a disturbing presence on the start line, Christie was in no mood to encourage a pointed hypothesis. The 200 watt smile didn't flicker and dim. "Carl wasn't here," he replied. "He can't go on for ever. This was my day."

Later, in secluded quarters some six kilometres from the place where Christie became only the third Briton in history, after Harold Abrahams and Alan Wells, to win the Olympic 100 metres, Lewis consoled Leroy Burrell, his friend and fellow member of the Santa Monica track club who finished in fifth place.

Shortly before the race Lewis, preparing to renew rivalry with Mike Powell in the long jump, had put Burrell in a shake up with Christie, Fredericks and Mark Witherspoon. "I'll go for Leroy but Linford, Frankie and the 'Spoon' are right there," he said.

For Witherspoon there would be only be the considerable pain he felt when seriously hurt after completing just 30 metres of his semi-final. Apart from substantially reducing the threat to him that injury was thought to have even greater significance when Christie powered through to take the gold medal.

With promoters already seeking to bring the Olympic champion and the world record holder together, it was realised that it could happen before the Olympic flame is extinguished if the US include Lewis in their 4x100 metre relay team.

As the sixth placed Olympic trialist Lewis is only second reserve for the relay, but in return for his selection the powerful Santa Monica club may relax their objection to Michael Johnson, the clear favourite at 200m, replacing one of their men in the 4x400 metre relay.

In any event, Christie is now established as an outstanding Olympic champion, as dignified in victory as he was proud. Probably the bearing was not intentional but having completed a lap of honour he appropriately struck a matador's pose, long back arched, a union flag folded cape-like over his outstretched left arm.

Often the burning question has been whether he would ever learn to live with fame. Leaving himself open to adverse criticism, Christie got more than he deserved, and suffered for it. Pleas for tolerance were entered in the hope that he would get, and accept, a chance to grow up.

Nevertheless, for all the mean pettiness that suggested Christie was a poor choice as captain of the Great Britain team, it could never be assumed that he was allergic to pressure.

Indeed, he claims never to have been more relaxed at the start of a major race than he was on Saturday. In contrast Burrell who had edged him out in their semi-final, looked tense, sweating up like a horse that can be written off as a bad investment from the moment it arrives in the parade ring.

Nothing appeared to disturb Christie. He seemed oblivious to the escalating drama, smiling when Burrell was correctly called for inducing a premature surge.

At 20 metres Christie, shoulder to shoulder with Mitchell, was two hundredths of a second down on Mitchell. At 40 metres they were all down on Surin of Canada, running in lane one. At 60 metres Christie had the edge. From there, the strongest finisher in the field, returning 9.96, he was uncatchable.

Chances are not even Christie can fully appreciate the extent of his success. "It will take a couple of days to sink in," he admitted, "and with the 200 metres and the relay to come there won't be an opportunity to celebrate. I can't remember much about it. I always expect to be in the mix up, but after the semi-finals, I knew it was going to be me. It's just a race, but the best race of my life. The best feeling, the greatest feeling I've ever had."

Heroic images cast by other great black athletes have never filled Christie's mind. "There isn't anyone," he insisted, "only the people who did so much to get me here." He spoke of his coach Ron Roddan, and poignantly of Ron Pickering and Les Jones, influential figures who did not live to witness the achievement. "Wherever Ron and Les are I know they will have been cheering," he added.

This is a man who almost retired last year after disappointingly finishing fourth in the World Championships. "I had so many letters asking me to continue, that I decided to carry on," he said, "give it one more go."

Christie had a gold medal in his pocket and the world at his feet; people were hanging on every word. The past and the present and the future. "I intend going on for a while yet," he said.

Elsewhere in Barcelona men were licking the lips and talking in seven figures. There was a time when even Christie's best friends were inclined to despair. Today if somebody were to ask what a great athlete looked like, whose image would come to mind?