Not the retiring kind

profile Linford Christie; Norman Fox analyses the long race for respect that has exhausted an Olympic champion
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The Independent Online
A FORTNIGHT ago at a soulless Crystal Palace, Linford Christie was sitting in the cold after running for his club - "for nothing", as he kept pointing out. Unlike last Monday night when before millions on television he tearfully announced his impending retirement, his audience consisted of a couple of journalists and some friends. To all intents and purposes it was a rehearsal that for one revealing reason fell short of the declaration that he would not be around next year to defend his Olympic title.

Having been beaten on a flooded track in a stadium he says never sees the sun, he could almost be forgiven for having a good old moan. There is nothing he moans about more enthusiastically than the media, but the British Athletic Federation comes a close second. He had a good word for only one athletics writer, who, presumably, was the only one that week not to mention his age. He is 35 years old, but according to the world and Olympic champion that is irrelevant and should never be mentioned, even though most of his admirers take heart from the achievements of someone embarking on life's second lap. He was in a mood to chuck it all in there and then, but he held back. The last thing he wanted was to give the few athletics writers who had bothered to turn up the glory of a sensational story.

While Christie believed the BAF had only a little more interest in his well-being than the media did, and had words of criticism for everyone apart from his loyal public, predictably he reserved the pith of his vituperation for the press, which, if he could ignore the gimmickry of the comic end of the tabloid market, has been sympathetic. What he demands is more than sympathy, more than understanding. He wants what no responsible journalist can give: whole-hearted, subjective support. No one is going to convince him that it is not the job of journalists to be promoters. In any case, he has his own PR company to do that for him.

Athletics has the most sympathetic press of any major sport. Its average press box has virtually no scandal-seekers and a high proportion of "train- spotters", statistics-loving reporters who get excited about personal best times and county records. So, naturally, they expect a lot from a highly paid, full-time professional athlete who is at the apex of a large and predominantly amateur sport. Christie puts a great deal into it but is used to getting a deal more than others in return, so much so that many a club athlete questions where the sport is heading. They wonder at the way athletics allowed itself to be man- ipulated in the past and they are not surprised that in a season of need it finds itself embarrassed financially and asking Christie to take a cut in appearance money.

For a long time, athletics at the top level had two priorities, getting bums on seats and hauling in the television money. Now it seems undecided. In a way it faces much the same situation that troubled professional football when the Premiership came into being. The argument against an "elite" was that it would take support from the base of the sporting pyramid. Christie is the most elite of the elite. He can well afford to run for Thames Valley Harriers for nothing when European promoters offer him pounds 25,000 simply for turning up.

With some justification, he might claim that in return for considerable rewards he and Sally Gunnell have kept athletics solvent and sustained public interest at a time when drugs scandals have spread a huge cloud of scepticism. Charming by nature, bitter by occasional option, he has also acted the pied piper for dozens of youngsters and has always been a fine ambassador when mixing with the crowds he loves. Though born in Jamaica, he came to crowded Shepherd's Bush, in London, when he was seven. "I didn't realise I was black until everyone was chasing around the playground and a little girl came up and said `You can't play. My mummy said I shouldn't kiss the blackies.' " He also reflects uneasily on his teenage days as a bit of a tearaway before Ron Roddan - still his coach - spotted him, gradually pulled him away from the party scene and eventually guided him to Olympic gold in Seoul. Roddan is his mentor but Christie has always spoken about the influence of his father's deep religious beliefs. However, the loss of his mother last week must have affected his state of mind. She was in hospital when he appeared on television on Monday and died on Thursday shortly after he had threatened photographers and reporters at Heathrow.

He once said: "For me to come from the West Indies and be captain of the British team is the highest accolade you can get." He thinks of himself as British through and through and is so patriotic that he takes criticism of his country personally and criticism of himself as an affront to his country.

Where things appear to have gone wrong recently is not so much on the track, where a few defeats may well be insignificant in view of his impressive early-season times.Having set up his own athletes' management agency with Colin Jackson, Christie has had to promote himself and others at the very time athletics in Britain is going through a bad patch financially (three major meetings this summer are still without sponsorship). This year and next were going to be his "benefit" seasons, a time to seek out a few final big pay-days before the end of the road. Things are not working out like that.

Following the dismissal of the promotions officer, Andy Norman, who may have made a good many enemies but got the top athletes organised, dealt the cards, shuffled the pack, knocked administrative heads together and made athletes rich because he was a born wheeler- dealer who knew how to attract big money into the sport, athletics is probably cleaner but also poorer. Christie sees no reason why he should suffer because athletics in Britain has given the impression within its administration that it wants to go back to the days of believing that the most important people are those who run, jump and throw badly but have fun.

One of the reasons is that the BAF is now headed by Professor Peter Radford, a man today's professional athletes think of as old- fashioned, with a donnish attitude and a broad, though somewhat confusing sense of responsibility towards the grass roots of the sport. He seems totally out of place in Christie's world but, though criticised for failing to lead athletics out of its present mess, he will probably be around after the great champion has retired, which may not be at the end of this season.

Among Christie's friends who firmly believe that a victory in the world championships in Gothenburg next month will see him back-track on his retirement is Fatima Whitbread, the former world javelin record-holder. She says she has more or less heard it all before and that what Christie says one minute he believes with convincing intensity but later is easily swayed by being on a high after a good race or two, especially against Americans.

Making Americans swallow their boasts has always given him enormous satisfaction, especially when men such as Carl Lewis suggest that world records mean more than gold medals. But now he says athletics means virtually nothing to him and that he has "other things" to do. What other things? He has come up with no positive suggestions apart from continuing to promote his company, which is called Nuff Respect - another indication of his sincere but misplaced belief that the media has not given him enough recognition. Any newspaper cuttings service would tell a different story, as he should know since he subscribes to one.

Apart from understandable concern about his mother, what may well have sparked his latest outburst, which will certainly not be his last, was not so much the cheap absurdity of a tabloid concentrating on protruding parts of his anatomy but the discovery that a journalist had completed a biography whileChristie was writing his own life story. Duncan Mackay's book hasbeaten Christie's efforts into print by several months and the subject is not best pleased. Recently he telephoned Athletics Weekly magazine to claim that he and his agent should have been paid the courtesy of being allowed to see the manuscript and photographs before publication.

If his obsession with a sense of being persecuted by the media was mainly in his own mind, his abrasive exchange with photographers and journalists at Heathrow last week suggested that he was beginning to find out what being hounded by the more aggressive side of the media pack was really like.