Merry's misery over Christie

IF KATHERINE MERRY'S heart skipped a beat yesterday it had nothing to do with the effort of recording a personal best in the 400 metres at Crystal Palace. The news last week that a 39-year-old sprinter in semi- retirement had tested positive for nandrolone has tipped the balance of suspicion in a sport struggling to cling on to the last vestiges of its credibility.

IF KATHERINE MERRY'S heart skipped a beat yesterday it had nothing to do with the effort of recording a personal best in the 400 metres at Crystal Palace. The news last week that a 39-year-old sprinter in semi- retirement had tested positive for nandrolone has tipped the balance of suspicion in a sport struggling to cling on to the last vestiges of its credibility.

To Merry and many of her colleagues the words "to dope control" mean a journey into the unknown for the innocent as well as the guilty. "I have no faith in the system any more," Merry said after she had been called for a random test at the CGU British grand prix meeting.

For all the prevailing air of cynicism, fear of being caught is not an emotion which should concern an athlete as patently honest as Merry. She is, as yet, neither a world record holder nor a world champion and, on a day studded with records of all shapes and sizes which brought top class athletics back to Britain for the first time in several years and which saw the first officially confirmed sub-10sec 100m here, her third place in the 400m in a stadium still filling up barely registered on the Richter scale.

In fact, at 24, Merry is desperately trying to fulfil the potential she showed as a European junior champion, a quest which has brought her to the door of Linford Christie, the guru of the current crop of talented young British sprinters. Taking drugs might have been the easy way out for her. As it is, yesterday marked another milestone in her painfully slow graduation to the ranks of the contenders at the World Championships in Seville later this month.

But it was not just Merry's association with Christie that lent her words particular poignancy yesterday. She was voicing an athlete's fear, a fear of the limbo that Dougie Walker has survived and Gary Cadogan, the 400m hurdler also cited for a positive drugs test by the International Amateur Athletics Federation last week, is about to endure in Christie's giant shadow. News leaking out from Scotland, of all strange places, that Christie's test showed a level of nandrolone 100 times above Walker's only added to the sense of desperation in the athletes' village beneath the north stand.

"What happened to Linford could happen to me, could happen to any other athlete," Merry said. "Sally Gunnell said the other day that everyone might get done and she hit the nail on the head. This is a very scary time for all athletes."

If this had been an ordinary meeting Merry would have played safe with the twinge she was feeling in her left knee. But this was the renaissance of live athletics in Britain, a meeting billed as "world class" without threat of infringing the Trades Description Act.

Besides, running her heart out was the only way Merry could think of to show support for her coach. And, for a blink over 50 seconds, she did just that. "Nothing was going to stop me from running," she said, the words bursting out of her with the adrenalin.

"I'm not going to lie. I'm an extremely strong-minded athlete, but what happened this week became a point of anger for me and the group [which Christie coaches] as a whole.

"Linford asked me for 49sec. Maybe another time. I ran for just one person. I love Linford ... and I've always looked up to him since I started my career. I know I can speak for the whole group of athletes when I say we're 100 per cent behind him."

Christie's spirit was everywhere in the venerable corridors of the Palace. It had to be his spirit, because Christie was absent, however much such a glittering array of talent demanded his presence. He wasn't in the BBC studio either. But the sprinters did him proud anyway, Maurice Greene breaking the 10sec barrier in Britain for the first time and Marion Jones blowing away a class field in the women's 100m.

"If you follow my career for the next seven or eight years," the American told a capacity crowd at Crystal Palace, "you might see history." There was enough to be going on with yesterday.

This morning British athletics will return to the rhythms of life behind the net curtains. But they will do so with at least a vision of the future. If there is some calm water out there somewhere David Moorcroft and his newly revamped body, UK Athletics, have yet to find it. They deserve better for their gallant attempts to piece together the shards of a shattered sport. As Alan Pascoe, head of Fast Track, the commercial arm of UK Athletics rightly pointed out, yesterday's meeting gave the lie to the accusation that the British public are not interested in world-class athletics.

Christie should have been there because his loyalty to British athletics and to the public has been unquestioned. Repayment came in the overwhelming support of the athletes and the home crowd would have liked the chance to leave their own signature. Of the thousands of messages he received last week, none would have had more impact than the fax received from Diane Modahl, whose own trials at the hands of the authorities have all but ruined her life.

Modahl ran second yesterday in the 800m, but her athletics are incidental. She received 162 requests for interviews last week. "It's unbelievable," she said of the allegations against Christie. "They made a mistake with Dougie, they made a mistake with me and I guarantee you they've made a mistake with Linford."

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