Superman fuelled on pure anger

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The Independent Online
Tomorrow evening at 6.55, Linford Christie will be standing in his favourite place: at the head of a 100m running track. Around him several Americans in vibrant shades of Lycra will be fidgeting, jumping and hollering; priming themselves for the effort ahead. In contrast Christie will, as always, be absolutely still, eyes shut, chin tilted upwards, his face a mask of steely self-confidence.

Until, that is, the pistol goes for the 100-metres final of the World Athletics Championships, when he will take off down the track with his Schwarzenegger arms thumping, his cheeks pinned back by the g-force, an explosion of muscular effort. It is one of the greatest sights in sport - Linford Christie bursting from the blocks - and if he could distil whatever it is that fuels histake-off, he could keep Nasa solvent for a decade.

Those who know him, however, say there is no secret ingredient. Frank Dick, the former head coach of the British athletics team, explains: "Often before races Linford and I chewed each other's ears off. It wasn't comfortable, but that is Linford's way of building himself up. He focuses on whatever makes him angry and he gets mad."

And right now, as the best sprinters in the world are likely to find out at about 6.55 and 10 seconds on Sunday evening, Linford Christie is very angry indeed. Angry enough to have a serious chance of doing the unprecedented: retaining the title of the fastest man in the world at the age of 35.

You might wonder what someone in his position could find to be angry about. He is, after all, the greatest sportsman this country has produced, presently the Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth sprint champion; a man who has earned vast sums from his sport; a man, furthermore, who has remained at the top of his trade longer than anyone had previously considered possible: his long-time rival, Carl Lewis, for instance, although a couple of years younger, has long disappeared from serious competition.

But rather than enjoying his pre-eminence, Christie seems permanently aggrieved that he is not given the esteem he deserves. The word he most often uses is "respect".

There is the lack of respect from the athletics administrators who have singled him out in their campaign to stop athletes' wages emptying a rapidly diminishing sponsorship pot; they fail, he reckons,to see that he brings money to the sport rather than the other way round. There is a lack of respect, too, from the press, who belittle his achievements by tiresomely concentrating on his age and the contents of his shorts. The full extent of his disquiet was revealed in an emotional outburst on ITV's Sport in Question in June. "I'm not good for my age; I'm good because I'm good," he spluttered. "Praise me or accept me for being what I am. Not because I'm 34." That comment was particularly revealing: he was 35 at the time.

To Linford's detractors (and there are plenty) this was a whinge too far, proof he had a chip on both shoulders. If he can't take a bit of ribbing about a lunch-box and about the fact he's now a grandfather when he has won and earned so much, they say, he should get out of the kitchen, fast. "Good riddance," said the man in the Mirror.

But this is to miss the point. In part, Christie's problem with his age is that he doesn't like to be reminded that it all has to end soon. He is hooked on the burn of the gym, addicted to the adrenalin rush of competition, a hopeless junkie for the camaraderie of the training camp. Recently he has been helping in the development of several young athletes, and clearly enjoys the role of mentor, but it is not the same. He can't bear to contemplate life without running.

But what riles him most about the age business is the easy assumption by some that he has remained at the top for so long thanks to pharmaceutical assistance (and that doesn't mean his 12-bananas-a-day diet). Christie has always maintained his abhorrence of performance-enhancing drugs - "I'm as clean as they come," he said recently - and those closest to him emphatically back him. Yet such denials produce splutterings of mirth among certain elements of the press. And drug insinuations grow apace, most recently last Monday's World In Action, which implied he had been spared home visits from testers because of his reputation; this, despite the fact that he was asked to provide samples on 17 occasions last year.

You can see why the questions continue: those asking them find it easier to attribute Christie's age-defying powers to drugs. The other explanation - that he is blessed with a combination of physique and mental application that is simply extraordinary - is too painful a reminder of their own mediocrity. It is always easier to cope with genius if it is revealed to possess feet of clay.

And Christie compounds his crime of being extraordinary, and to some, threatening, by being black - a black superman. It makes himangry that his unwanted image is diminishing his efforts to be a positive model for young blacks. "I see young kids doing things they ought not to," he recently told the Independent. "And I stop and say: 'Why don't you get down the track?' And they say: 'You can't tell us anything. We've read all about you'."

In the flesh - and there is a lot of it - Christie is an odd mixture: a huge physical presence combined with paralysing social diffidence. With those he knows he is relaxed, good company, a good lad; in the company of those he doesn't he is tense and suspicious, capable of sudden and frightening turns of anger. This insecurity is unexpected in a man so comfortable with his own ability and it makes him vulnerable to slights, real or imagined. And because he lacks all the political skills of, say, a Sebastian Coe, he thrashes out. He gets angry.

In a lesser athlete, such a thin skin would be a liability, diverting energy from the important task in hand. Yet this, of all Christie's assets, is his crowning skill: to apply everything, even a potentially paralysing flaw, to his advantage. That is not to say he engineers rows as a motivational tool; he is not sufficiently calculating for that. It is just that when they happen, he can channel his hurt pride to explode a micro-second faster.

And so tomorrow evening Christie's mind will turn to the press jibes and mean-minded administrators and he will get mad. Not that any of his opponents, as they fidget and yelp around him, will know that. All they will see is a frightening vision of calm.

"Mentally you have got to get the other guys to think you are The Man," he said recently. "And that's what I am. The Man."

Win or lose tomorrow, that is how he should be remembered.