Close-up: Ron Roddan Power behind the glory

The coach who has driven Linford Christie to his greatest successes is standing by for Atlanta.
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The theory is that next weekend at the AAA championships and British Olympic trials in Birmingham, Linford Christie will finally announce if he is to defend his Olympic title. The press, whom he despises, will not be the first to know. Nor will his buddy, Colin Jackson. As always, Christie will first confide in a shadowy figure, the trusted, silver-haired Ron Roddan, his first and only coach.

Tempting though it is to suggest that nobody much cares any more, the fact is most people with any interest in athletics do. Would you set the alarm for the middle of the night to watch Jonathan Edwards' triple jump, Sally Gunnell or Colin Jackson? But Christie in an Olympic 100 metres final - irresistible.

No doubt his contempt for the press will be emphasised by his issuing a statement through his company, Nuff Respect, or he may say something to one of television's ex-athlete interviewers, who are the sport's promotion men in thin disguise. Jackson dropped what was interpreted as a heavy hint by saying that because he and Christie sometimes train together it must be obvious that they both want Olympic glory. Possibly, but as far as Christie is concerned the decision is likely to be more a matter of whether his training and up and down early season competition suggests that he can win in Atlanta. Only he and Roddan will make that decision.

Roddan, unobtrusive and with a slight stammer that he unwittingly turns to good effect because it makes athletes listen more intently than they might to a hollering bully, is always there. He has been since a teenage Christie first ambled into the Thames Valley Harriers club and took a half-hearted interest in being a sprinter. Roddan diverted him from a life of freewheeling to one of extraordinary dedication that turned him into a millionaire Olympic champion and his coach into . . . well in to being slightly better known, perhaps a bit better off, a lot better travelled, but at the end of the day still the guy who turns up in the middle of December at the grandly named, badly under-funded Linford Christie stadium. There he gives as much attention to kids with not a hope in the world of emulating Christie as he does to Olympians.

Roddan is the sort of bloke who makes athletics tick, unpaid and unsung. At the same time he has made Christie tick like Big Ben. Yet when he first saw the tall, cynical youth he registered nothing. He says he cannot even remember the day Christie first introduced himself at what was then called the West London Stadium. After a while he recognised a talent but waited until Christie was ready to do something about it. That sensitivity is something Christie has never forgotten. There was no real pressure, just the occasional word suggesting what a waste it would be if he failed to exploit his ability. Christie still listens to every word, just as he will next weekend when, barring incredibly poor performances or injury, Roddan says his message will be: "I think you should go."

Any attempt to get at the Christie psyche through Roddan is futile, which is why Christie trusts him and also the way that a coach-athlete relationship should be. Other coaches gossip wildly about their athletes and make equally wild claims. Christie says the whole secret of the relationship is that Roddan can give him direction without threatening his morale. Criticism and praise come without highs and lows of emotions. "If I say `Ron that was shit'," Christie said, "he will say, `That's what I thought. Never mind, we can do this . . .'" He says that whatever medals he wins or money he earns, the thing he prizes is "seeing the smile on Ron's face".

To watch Roddan work with young athletes in the depth of winter is to see why Christie believes he has the best eye in the business. He misses nothing and listens. Ask any of them why they put up with shed-like "indoor" facilities and give up chunks of normal teenage life and some suggest "ambition" or the prospect of fame and fortune, like Christie, but all say "because of Ron". He has no children of his own and is given to referring to the young hopefuls as "my kids". He watches over their modest progress but never forgets to do his homework on Christie's rivals, who currently include his training partner, Frankie Fredericks, and Dennis Mitchell, both of whom beat him last week. It was by watching Fredericks' starting technique two summers ago that Roddan stopped Christie rolling from side to side, which lost time over the first few metres.

Roddan, a former Civil Service laboratory assistant, was a sprinter in the Fifties and Sixties. A Middlesex county final was as far as he got, but his life remained athletics. He has been coaching at the Thames Valley Harriers for 35 years. Obviously, turning Christie from an objecting 19- year-old to an increasingly obstreperous but still awesome 36-year-old Olympic champion has been his greatest achievement, although he has had more than 30 athletes selected for the British team over the years. Yet in spite of Christie's progress he has spent most of his coaching life without official recognition.

When Frank Dick was Britain's chief coach, Roddan was left to work from outside the accredited circle. He just thought "stuff it" and continued to coach Christie by moving around the world with him. "He looks after my air fares and accommodation but I don't get paid - that would change the relationship." His approach to Christie is much different to Dick's aggressive verbal battles. Dick claims that the arguments were set up by Christie because that was his way of preparing himself for races. Christie says he found Dick's antagonistic way of spurring on athletes irritating, though occasionally it irritated him enough to make him achieve more than he thought possible. Neverthless, he believes Roddan's measured style is better for him.

Roddan says he has always wanted Christie to retire at the top, but there is obviously a dilemma. Having said that this will be his last season on the international circuit, retiring at the top has to mean that Christie must be confident of retaining his Olympic title or not running at all. He lost his world title last summer in Gothenburg and he is certainly not the fastest sprinter in the world. Retiring as the fallen (literally) champion in the world championships and then in the Olympics would spoil the scenario and damage an ego that, however much it grates, is still the product of sporting greatness.

Roddan says that in spite of the large number of young sprinters who have treated Christie as a role model, none of them can take his place. But come rain or shine he still turns up at the track hard by the bleak walls of Wormwood Scrubs prison, just in case.

Over-thirties fortified for Atlanta

Tessa Sanderson (40) Javelin: Persuaded to come back to help raise money for Children in Hospital, but obviously enjoying the limelight after making do with the pantomime spotlight. Reached the Olympic qualifying distance of 60m with only her second competitive throw in four years. Aiming for her sixth Olympics.

Judy Oakes (38) Shot: In her 21st international season but still Britain's No 1. Has won 13 AAA titles but appeared in only one Olympic Games (1994 when she was fourth). British record holder since 1988. Won her 73rd British international vest last winter, another record.

Richard Nerurkar (32) Marathon: Controversially pre-selected last February for Britain's Olympic team. The 1993 World Marathon Cup winner had not raced since November due to toe injury but ran a 61:06 half-marathon to prove fitness. Won Masters degree at Harvard and attended Oxford University.

Liz McColgan (32) Marathon: Won her first two marathons, including fastest ever debut run in New York (2hr 27min 32sec) in 1991. Often struggled against injuries but won this year's London Marathon in warm conditions by the sensible pacing that will be required in Atlanta.

Mick Hill (31) Javelin: Has suffered from succession of injuries that have interrupted a long career. He had a shoulder operation in the winter yet is now throwing around 80m. World bronze medal winner in 1993 but has lived in shadow of Steve Backley, who has also had an operation. A seven handicap golfer.