He thought he had had the perfect start. But it turned out to be the imperfect end.
As Linford Christie contemplated the fractional error yesterday which had disqualified him from defending his Olympic 100 metres title, he was still brimful of pain. His voice tightened when he talked about the decision to exclude him from the final for a second false start.
"The first one I knew I did," he said. "But on the second one I felt I reacted perfectly to the gun. I have never been disqualified from a race before in my life. What a place to do it."
The failure of the 36-year-old champion to win a single grand prix event before the Games had prompted widespread speculation that his number was up. In the end, that number was 0.086 - the fraction of a second which measured his reaction time. Under International Amateur Athletic Federation rules, runners are not allowed to get away from their blocks any faster than 0.1sec. Thus, Christie missed his final Olympic challenge by 0.014 sec.
The question of whether he could have hoped to match Donovan Bailey's subsequent world record of 9.84sec had he been allowed to run was one he avoided. "Don't you think so?" he asked.
It was hard to imagine him doing so. But, as he had predicted, he had improved steadily throughout the opening three rounds even if though he had left himself with a huge task of catching up after a poor start in the semi-final. As he made up his ground to claim the fourth qualifying place, it was clear that this was a man running on willpower and a stubborn sense of self-belief.
He confessed, however, that he had thoughts before the competition began that he was not going to be successful. "There was a time when I felt that. But as the rounds went on, I thought, 'I can win this'."
When he went to his blocks in the final, though, he knew his only real chance was making a start as dramatically good as his semi-final one had been bad. When that failed, he was left with two choices. "In that position, you can either sit back and die running like a sucker, or you go out and give it your all." Christie did the latter, like a tennis player blasting his second serve - and the ball was so close to the line that it raised chalk.
Christie recalled that the reaction time his sometime training partner Mark McKoy had registered in winning the 1993 world indoor high hurdles title was quicker than the one which led to his removal on Saturday night. "People point the finger and say, 'You can't react'. But everyone's reaction is totally different. I think they need to reassess these things."
There were different reactions off the track as well - Christie was criticised for putting off the other runners as he waited for confirmation of his expulsion from the running ref- eree John Chaplin. Christie's decision to run down the track straight after the final had finished, waving to the crowd, was also criticised - and this did indeed appear a culpable piece of timing on his behalf, detracting from Bailey's triumph. Dennis Mitchell, the United States runner, was reported as saying Christie's behaviour was "disrespectful" - a charge Christie dismissed yesterday: "You know Dennis. What can I say?"
But he had had something to say to Ato Boldon in the mixed-zone changing area after the Trinidadian had accused him of affecting his concentration. Christie was steered away to a quieter part of the area by Frankie Fredericks and Jon Drummond. "Ato felt I was disrespectful because I should have walked off," Christie said. "But he's a very excitable, impressionable young guy. I forgive him for that."
Christie defended his run to the crowd in the aftermath of the final. "Why not?" he said. "I felt it was me they wanted. I was like the people's champion. I felt it was a sad way to go out, just going down the tunnel. So I did my little bit and got a round of applause."
So much of Christie's motivation and accompanying insecurity was revealed here. The idea that he will disappear down the tunnel that awaits all athletes, however great, is like a death to him. But the tunnel draws him on. Although he will compete on the European circuit this year, including Zurich, he dismissed the idea of challenging for another world title next year.
"Deep inside I'm feeling rotten," he said. "But I have kept myself to myself in the athletes' village. I'm sharing a room with Colin (Jackson) and I didn't want to distract him. I can't afford more moods or whatever because it would be reflected on the rest of the team."
It will take a long time, perhaps a lifetime, for him to forget the excruciating details of this Olympic final. His face, an Easter Island statue of concentration before the start of the final, registered a spasm of dismay as the race was recalled for the last time. At that stage, Christie said he did not know what had happened and did not assume the false start was his. He appeared to mouth the words, "What was that for?"
When he learned the reason, he went over to the starter. "I wanted to try and find out what had happened," he said. "They told me my reaction time, but they didn't have a picture to show me so I waited to see it when it appeared. When the track referee came out I thought he was going to come over and study a monitor or something. But that was it. When they tell you you are out, there's not a lot you can do."
What Christie will do when it is time to go from the competitive field is uncertain. In the medium term, he hopes to carry on working with his current training partners, Fredericks and Merlene Ottey. It has not been a good Olympics for the group so far. Fredericks sportingly expressed satisfaction with his 100 metres silver medal; Ottey still feels the gold was rightfully hers.
And Christie? He can only smile an empty smile.
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