Profile: Leader from the front: Linford Christie: He is not by nature objectionable or domineering, but he can work on it, says Norman Fox

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The Independent Online
FLIGHT BA 798 from Heathrow to Helsinki was ready to leave. It was waiting for a passenger strolling along from the departure lounge who could have covered the 100 yards or so in about 10 seconds: Linford Christie. Everyone waits for Britain's Olympic and world champion.

You or I would have boarded breathless and embarrassed and been met by 'naughty boy' looks from the crew and scowls from other passengers; Big Lin was greeted with beaming smiles and a few knowing cheers from his mates in Economy. In his own good time, he placed half a ton of luggage in the overhead rack and beckoned one of the British team in steerage to join him up front. The crew remained sanguine.

The British team captain is not by nature objectionable or domineering, but he can work on it. Professor Peter Radford, international sprinter in the White City era, may head the British Athletics Federation, but Christie is the boss. He is the most successful British sprinter of all time, with nine gold medals in the Olympic Games, World and European championships and Commonwealth Games. No previous British sprinter has come near his total of 22 major championship medals.

Christie's appointment as British men's team captain before the 1992 Olympics could hardly be denied or delayed. He represents the new class of professionals and the wave of predominantly black sprinters who have moved the emphasis of British athletics from the middle-distance events once dominated by Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett; and away from the phoney amateurism of Christie's teenage days when top athletes had to have their prize money paid into 'trust funds'. Christie, anomalously under the jurisdiction of the Amateur Athletic Association at the Commonwealth Games in Canada this week, has become rich through sprinting. Sponsorship - including a pounds 500,000 two-year deal with Puma sportswear - and appearance fees will bring him more than pounds 1m this year. He demands up to pounds 25,000, plus prize-money, to run at major meetings. Inevitably he has become a role model for a generation of young sprinters, including Solomon Wariso.

When the plane got to Helsinki for this month's European Championships, Christie was immediately embroiled in a fierce row with the British Athletics Federation. He seems to need to be in an aggressive frame of mind before a big race and more often than not finds fuel in press stories. He will see any mildly critical comment, or reference to his age (34 in April) as a deeply hurtful personal attack.

This time it was more serious. Wariso, like himself a late developing but highly promising sprinter, had been found guilty of taking ephedrine, a banned stimulant, which apparently came from a pick-me-up bought in America by a 'mate', and which the team doctor said was no more potent that a cup of coffee. The offence had taken place several weeks before, but the federation claimed it learnt of it too late to stop Wariso going to Helsinki. Now they decided they had to stop him running in the championships, even though he had a right of appeal.

Christie, as captain, argued with the federation's officials that Wariso should compete. He, too, had been through the trauma of drug allegations. The row went on until one o'clock on the morning of Christie's 100m heat. The federation got its way but Christie was ready to run. He later said the whole business had tempted him to quit there and then. But Christie is no quitter.

After winning the 100m title, he became increasingly protective towards other athletes. To the consternation of British officials, he crossed the track during the high jump to talk to one of the jumpers, his friend Dalton Grant. Afterwards Christie ushered Grant away from the press interview area. He gives the impression that his achievements put him above sport etiquette, nowhere more noticeably than when, in an earlier competition, he was wrongly warned for a false start. He returned to the starting block, turned off the red light and announced: 'I never false start'.

Not all the British team admire his attitude to authority or feel obliged to discuss athletics with him, but all acknowledge his formidable presence and ability to inspire through example; and to terrify anyone who fails to perform to their maximum. The sight of him tearing down the top of his leotard after the sprint relay team he was supposed to have led to victory in Helsinki dropped the baton sent the other three on a long detour to avoid his wrath.

''Whoever said losing wasn't important was a loser himself; it's rubbish. Who cares about the people who took part? The only people who are remembered are the winners,' he has said. He sees himself as a born winner: 'God decides who he is going to make Number One, and that's my calling.' He talks a lot about 'the man upstairs' and says that if it's God's will that he becomes Commonwealth Games champion this week, then so be it.

LINFORD CHRISTIE inherits his faith from his pentecostal parents. They moved from Kingston, Jamaica, to Shepherd's Bush, London, when he was two, but he was left with his grandmother until he was seven, when he joined his four sisters and two brothers.

Athletics played only a minor part in his upbringing. Although naturally powerful and quick, with an ability to run faster than many teenagers who worked at it, he drifted. Parties were more important than a career in athletics and he broke more hearts than records. Christie had a variety of jobs including supermarket cashier in Wandsworth, tax collector and working in a sports centre. One relationship produced a son, Merrick, now 14, and another made him father to twin eight- year-old boys, Liam and Korel, whom he refused to acknowledge until it was proved by genetic testing.

At 25 he was stopped in his meandering tracks by Ron Roddan, a coach at the West London Stadium - now the Linford Christie Stadium. Roddan was frustrated by this latent, lazy talent and told Christie to give up club athletics altogether or turn himself into the Olympic champion he could become. Andy Norman, now his agent and friend and then chief promoter of the British Athletics Federation, told him to quit the good life (especially the Bacardi) and turn himself into Europe's top sprinter. Christie respected Norman's bluntness and credits him and Roddan, still his coach, with putting him on the straight track to Olympic gold.

These were the days when, Christie has said, 'old ladies would hold up their handbags because they saw a black person'. When he first made the England team he and two others were arrested on their way home. A policeman said: 'What's a nigger like you doing in an England tracksuit.' There was a row outside Shepherd's Bush police station and Christie was bound over to keep the peace. He believes that smiling and being successful helps race relations but others say he is a perfectly balanced athlete only because he has a chip on both shoulders.

A lot of weight training, dedicated practice, 'running in all- weathers when I just wanted to be at home with my girlfriend', occupied him for nearly three years after Roddan and Norman's ultimatum. Then came the Olympic Games in Seoul where he became the first European to run under 10 seconds, and his bronze medal in the 100m turned to silver when the Canadian Ben Johnson was banned for taking drugs. It was in Seoul that he faced drugs accusations himself. He believes in the rejuvenating powers of ginseng to help replace lost energy. There had never been any suggestion that it was an aid to athletic performance but his test proved positive.

He admitted later that the night after being told about the test he stood on the ninth floor balcony of his Olympic village room and contemplated suicide 'because of the shame and embarrassment it would bring on my family and friends, even though I was innocent'. In the event, the International Olympic Committee cleared him. They said he had 'been given the benefit of the doubt'. This qualified cleansing of his name grates. 'I am still running against people who are cheating. I'm clean and I can tell them that they're in trouble because the drugs they take are not working because they're not beating me.'

Now 34, he is not considering retirement. He says the younger athletes he beats ought to feel ashamed because they keep getting beaten by 'this old man' and insists 'you haven't seen the best of me yet'. As a racer who performs best on the big occasion, he is likely to win more medals. That, he maintains, is more important than setting world records that can be taken away a few days later. 'It gets you respect' - especially on BA flights.

(Photograph omitted)