Winning return on a naked endorsement

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The Independent Online
THE LAST time we saw Linford Christie, he was face-down on the cinders in Gothenburg while several men in anoraks strapped what appeared to be a packet of frozen peas to the rear of one of his thighs. There are places in Europe where it would cost you a small fortune to arrange that scenario, but if you are Linford and you've just crashed out of the 100 metres in the world championships, the service comes free.

At that point, the future looked pretty bleak for Britain's sprint champion and the European and Commonwealth tantrum medallist. The combination of defeat and injury, mixed in with Linford's much-publicised disenchantments with the athletics authorities and the press, suggested that the next time we heard from him, he would be running a Will Carling-style motivation agency out of a retirement home in Knutsford.

A week, though, is a long time in a top-flight hamstring clinic and blow me if Linford wasn't back on our screens last Wednesday for the Weltklasse event in Zurich shown on International Athletics (ITV). And blow me again if he didn't win.

This was no cheap and cheerful, post-Gothenburg sideshow, either. The Weltklasse - which, as Jim Rosenthal pointed out, twice, means "World Class" - had attracted just about every big name in contemporary athletics by the novel but effective means of writing them all giant cheques. So Linford was up against Donovan Bailey and both the other world championship medallists who danced past him as he lay on the track having his wounds tended.

For the occasion, Linford elected to wear what can only be described as an all-in-one Mars bar wrapper. The next day's pictures of his bare- chested victory lap would reveal that, underneath, he had thoughtfully painted the Puma logo on to his left pectoral - an astonishing new development in product endorsement. Even nude, Linford wears Puma. If this ever catches on in a big way, Damon Hill is going to be spending six hours every morning just doing his make-up.

In the race, Donovan Bailey was out-powered. As a staggered Alan Parry put it: "He had to take bridesmaid's place to Linford tonight." The blushing bride himself then granted a trackside exclusive to Jim Rosenthal. Actually, there was no blushing. The chilling defiance of the look which Christie wore directly after crossing the line had softened slightly, but he was still, even in victory, doing his now traditional bear-with-sore-head act.

"Pleased?" Rosenthal asked. "As long as I can shut up the doubters," Christie said, "the people who've been giving me hell." As he spoke, he was struggling to be heard above the hundreds of Swiss singing his name in unison. We can only imagine how hellish that must feel.

"I'm going to start thinking about me," he told Rosenthal, "about running for me and the people around me." Surely this put-upon schtick is wearing really thin now. Linford enjoys public goodwill of a kind normally reserved exclusively for the Queen Mother on her birthday. And she, to my knowledge, has never interpreted all those people waving flags and hankies at her as a massive surge of resentment. Linford, on the other hand, would probably feel persecuted to discover a hole in the middle of his Polo. Maybe he needs this grudge to run against. But you wish he would lighten up now and again.

Linford v Donovan was by no means the only Gothenburg re-match on Wednesday night. Gwen Torrence beat Merlene Ottey again in the women's 200m, but this time she did so from the privacy of her own lane and so didn't get disqualified. And the American sprinter Michael Johnson once more thrashed everyone in sight in a manner which suggested that one day soon he will become the first athlete to lap a straggler in the 400m.

A debate developed within the programme about whether the event's coming so soon after Gothen- burg was good or bad. In charge of pumping us up at home, Jim Rosenthal continually referred to the world championships as a springboard for greater glories in Zurich, picturing the medal-winners as high on success and now thrusting for world records. In the commentary box, Steve Ovett wondered if, actually, they weren't all knackered.

Viewers, meanwhile, will have gone into the competition refreshed by the experience of Gothenburg but, at the same time not a little spoiled by it. The cameras were everywhere there. In Zurich, we had to reacclimatise ourselves, squinting at the runners on the back straight down a lens so wide it virtually called for couch-binoculars.

Hard not to miss David Coleman and Brendan Foster too, though one had cause for dispute with them during the marathon. The runners were allowed to collect refreshment at set points along the 26 miles and many had their own favourite concoctions ready, in bottles bearing their numbers. Foster in particular seemed amazed by the complications of this, though if you've ever pre-ordered interval drinks at a theatre, you'll know exactly how it felt.

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