Farewell Christie and crowds

Norman Fox looks at the void to be left by the departure of Britain's showman
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The Independent Online
To say that Linford Christie's appearance at the Bupa Challenge match between Great Britain and an Americas Select at Gateshead tomorrow will be his last as an international is almost guaranteed to provoke him into being typically contrary and immediately offering himself for selection next season.

Be that as it may, no amount of contrary behaviour, bad feeling between himself and the press, nor questions about his suitability as British captain at the Olympics should obscure the fact that the world's athletics stage could be about to lose a phenomenal competitor. More importantly, Britain is saying an ambivalent farewell to its biggest crowd puller just when it can ill-afford to do so.

Appropriately, Christie's last race in his British leotard is to be against the man who deposed him as Olympic champion, Canada's Donovan Bailey. There is little doubt that Bailey will win. Christie's raw edge of determination has become blurred, but he remains a formidable sprinter. That he will not be recalled as a great champion in some quarters is simply his own fault. His reactions to some predictable examples of the tabloid newspapers going to their usual excesses showed that he overlooked that for most of his career he, like most British athletes, had a sympathetic press.

Like the British Athletic Federation head of coaching and development, Malcolm Arnold, who recently suggested that the press was not supportive enough, Christie confuses and misinterprets the role of athletics writers whose task it is to be objective, not provide ra-ra support, which is something athletes win from the crowds.

What has to be recorded at this time is that without Christie the last few years would have seen British athletics face a crisis that has been delayed, not avoided. However admirable the achievements of Sally Gunnell, Steve Backley, Jonathan Edwards and Colin Jackson, it was usually Christie who kept the sport in the headlines, not always for the right reasons but frequently simply because he was such a superb athlete. When he says that only when he is gone will athletics in Britain realise what it is missing, the natural reaction is to accuse him of being pompous, self- centred, irritable, churlish and a rotten loser, all criticism that he has more than justified. But can anyone take his place?

They say the sport is bigger than the individual. Christie would say: prove it. Can Edwards fill a stadium? Can Roger Black or any of the other gallant losers who came home from Atlanta and performed at Crystal Palace last weekend? Obviously not - the stadium was only a third full. Athletics in Britain is looking ready to withdraw into itself and become the homely, amateur-dominated participation sport that perhaps the BAF in the post- Andy Norman days has really always wanted. Prime time entertainment, controversy and such gimmicks as high jumping to music and target javelin throwing have never sat comfortably at the same table as Professor Peter Radford who, according to a lot of top athletes, directs the sport as if the White City had never been demolished.

As for the wider world, Michael Johnson is the only outstanding star, yet even he shows ominous signs of pricing himself out of a fragile market. Television wants athletics, but not as much as it needs football, and the sooner Johnson and the rest of the grand prix circuit performers get realistic and accept that, the better.

There is still a lot of money to be made but not sufficient for the excessively greedy. Christie has taken his and run away, probably at just the right time. The sport is dangerously close to over-heating at the very moment that, in Britain at least, the crowds have gone cool.