Last stand in Linford land

Simon Turnbull says Britain's captain is ready to hand over the European baton
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The Independent Online
It could be argued that Lincoln Asquith holds a unique place in European athletics. He was, after all, the last man to stop the European Cup 100m being anything other than a 10-second victory parade for Linford Christie. He did it by beating Christie into the British team. With his victory ahead of the emerging Thames Valley Harrier in the international match between Great Britain and what was then the German Democratic Republic, Asquith secured the 100m place in the squad selected to travel to Moscow. That was in 1985.

In the intervening 12 years Asquith has hung up his spikes and turned to coaching, injury having thwarted the Birchfield Harrier's attempts to develop fully the speed that won him the European junior 100m title in 1983 and that took him to fourth place behind Ben Johnson in the 60m at the World Indoor Games in 1985. His best sprinting days date back to times BC: Before Christie, or before the big Christie breakthrough, at any rate. Yet Asquith, who finished fourth in that European Cup 100m race in 1985, is three years younger than the veteran speed merchant who will be flying under the Union Jack flag for the last time when he leads the British men's team at the competition in Munich this weekend.

At 37, captain Christie insists the 1997 European Cup will be his absolute last hurrah in a Great Britain vest. Despite his encouraging early-season form on the European circuit, there will not, he maintains, be yet another false finish. It is less than 12 months, of course, since he revoked his decision not to run for Britain at the Atlanta Olympics and then announced at his billed farewell international match at Gateshead that he wished to rally to the national cause one more time. If it is truly the end of the international competition road for Christie at the weekend he could not have chosen a more fitting stage for his final fling. In 16 European Cup races he has been beaten by only one man: himself.

The two failures in an otherwise perfect winning record - disqualification from the 4 x 100m relay in Prague in 1987 and in Frankfurt in 1991 - were a direct result of Christie being too quick for his British team-mates. On both occasions he ran out of the change-over box before the in-coming runner could catch him to exchange the baton. Those two blemishes apart, Christie has dominated the European Cup like no other athlete in the 32-year history of what since 1993 has switched from a biennial to an annual contest between the track and field super powers of the continent. He has won all seven 100m races held since 1987. He has also won the four 200m races he has contested and anchored the 4 x 100m team to victory on the three occasions he grasped the baton within the permitted zone.

In Munich Christie will be attempting his fourth successive sprint double, though not (for the third year) the relay. On current form, having opened his farewell summer on the European circuit with wins in Hengelo and Rome, he ought to bid his farewell with another show of invincibility in the 100m on Saturday. The 200m is likely to prove a tougher proposition, though the Norwegian Geir Moen is struggling to rediscover the turbo-charged power that took him to the European title three years ago. Whatever the outcome of either event, this year's European Cup is sure to run over with the pomp and circumstance of Linford's Last Stand.

It will mark the end of an era in which British athletics savoured its most famous team success, when Christie's first task as men's captain was to lift the Bruno Zauli trophy in celebration of the 1989 European Cup win at Gateshead. But it could easily have been thwarted by an error. Christie has told the tale of how, in his years on the fringe of the British team, he was approached by Frank Dick and advised: "You'll never make it. Why don't you take up long jumping or something?" Dick, ironically, presided over the Gateshead triumph as the national director of coaching. "This is the greatest achievement in the history of British athletics," he trumpeted. "It's the dawning of a new era."

The glory of Gateshead has yet to be revisited, though it would have been in Frankfurt in 1991 had the 4 x 100m relay team not been disqualified or the 4 x 400m quartet not been thwarted by the contentious reinstatement of the Soviet team. The British men have been runners-up five times in succession now and, while another collective triumph is not beyond the bounds of possibility, the battle for individual honour is likely to become the preoccupation once again. The true barometer for British athletics will be success or failure at major championship level. That means the medals table at the World Championships in Athens in August and performances in the Olympic Stadium next weekend will be essentially pointers towards the bigger picture.

The glint of medal contention form has already been shown this summer by Denise Lewis, Ashia Hansen, Kelly Holmes, Steve Backley and Jonathan Edwards. In Munich, where Lewis concentrates on the long jump and both Hansen and Edwards challenge for European Cup triple jump hat-tricks, Roger Black will be among those seeking some suitable sparkle. Even if Michael Johnson makes it with a wild card to Athens, there is a chance that injury may have removed the metaphorical "S" of Superman invincibility from his chest. Linford Christie passes on leadership of the British men's team to Johnson's Olympic 400m shadow after the European Cup. It remains to be seen, however, whether Captain Black will assume the Midas touch too.