THIS IS A REALLY STRONG INTERVIEW WITH LINFORD CHRISTIE WITH BACKGROUNDING ON HIS LIFE AND CAREER. REFERENCES TO DOPING ARE NORMALLY DISCOURAGED, AS ARE RELATED REPLIES TO THIS NEWS POST, HOWEVER TO EDIT SUCH DRUG REFERENCES FROM THE ORIGINAL TEXT WOULD HAVE DAMAGED CONTINUITY OF THIS STORY. kk
‘Since when did Seb Coe learn to Jive talk?’
He is one of our greatest Olympic champions, once the fastest man in the world, yet no one wanted him to be part of London’s bid for the Games. No wonder Linford Christie is so angry. Exclusive interview by Tim Adams
On the day that London was awarded the 2012 Olympics, Linford Christie, like the rest of us, was sitting at home, in Gerrards Cross, watching David Beckham hugging Steve Redgrave hugging Tessa Jowell on television. I tell Britain’s most decorated athlete that I didn’t see him on any of the coverage of that surprising lunchtime, even for a quote, or maybe I just missed him.
‘I missed me, too,’ he says.
Christie had long tried to get involved in some way; he had phoned the organising committee to see if maybe he could run a leg of the torch relay that preceded the Athens Games, which ended with Redgrave lighting an optimistic flame in the Mall. For some days Christie’s telephone request was greeted with embarrassed silence. ‘Eventually,’ he says, ‘they rang back and said they could not see a place for me, because they were really full up. They were so full up that they found some places for page three girls, or whatever, to carry the torch, but obviously not for Olympic champions.’
Christie takes quite easily to martyrdom and these phone calls were a confirmation of what he must have understood already: that if a London bid were successful he would be officially blanked out of his home city’s Olympic memory. In fact, Sebastian Coe, the Tory peer and double Olympic champion, who led the bid, had announced as much in public. In 2001 Lord Coe had used his Daily Telegraph column to question publicly the character and morality of Christie, calling him ‘boorish’. That column went out on the week that Christie’s two-year ban from competition for testing positive for the stimulant nandrolone officially ended. It seemed timed, pointedly, to neuter any redemption that might have been possible. Christie responded with wide-eyed hurt and bemusement, a reaction that persists. Has he had any dealings with Coe since then?
‘No, none at all. When he came out with his outburst I was shocked. I’m still pretty shocked to tell you the truth. It was not as though we hated each other when we were on the team together or anything, so I have to think there was some other motivation.’
What does he think that motivation was? ‘Well, I know why he did it: he did it to further his career, and that is exactly the kind of person he is. I had called the IAAF corrupt and he wanted to become president of the IAAF, simple as that.’
Beyond any ambitions that Coe had to head athletics’ world governing body, Christie was further convinced that he was making a racial slur against him and reading that column again you can see how he could have come to that conclusion.
‘He said,’ Christie recalls, ‘that none of the British officials could understand me because I would deliberately “jive talk” in a meeting. I took that personally. Because first of all he is a damn liar. I have never been in a meeting with him talking any other way than I am talking to you. And to say “jive talking” anyway shows how far he is away from the real world. What is that, “jive talking”? It was funny, in a way, when I watched the film for the Olympic bid with all this footage of all these black inner-city kids, all doing their bit to sell the spirit of London. I thought, “Well, damn me, when did Seb learn to jive talk? He must have had some pretty good lessons to get all these kids on board”.’
It is convenient for Christie, who is now 45, to blame Coe and racial politics for his Olympic snub, while ignoring the more obvious reality of his failed drugs test, what he calls ‘the nandrolone thing’, which ruined the end of his career and, by implication, some of what went before. Does he not accept that his association could have damaged the bid?
‘If they came out and said to me you can’t be involved in any of this because of the nandrolone thing then fine, at least I’d know. But we call them up and they just never call back, they never give any reason.’
A frustrated Christie has tried making calls in a way that could not be ducked. The sprinter may not have seen much of Coe since 2001, but a year after the initial row he confronted his former team-mate when he was a guest on a Radio Five phone-in, producing a memorable exchange but not the apology he sought (see extract at the bottom).
I’ve interviewed people in the past who have tested positive for drugs in sport. In each case, sitting opposite them, you find yourself cast as a reluctant lie detector, looking for ticks and tells. Christie has argued his innocence for so long now that he recites it as if it was a mantra, or a curse. The facts of his case were that at a minor track meeting in Dortmund in February 1999, in his 40th year, he was found to have more than 100 times the acceptable limit of the steroid in his urine. A normal positive result would show maybe five times the limit. His defence, which was accepted by the British governing body but rejected by the IAAF, was principally motive: why would he risk everything when it no longer mattered?
‘If I took drugs there had to be a reason to take drugs,’ he says, not quite wearily. ‘I had pretty much retired from the sport. I wasn’t in proper training. I came back because the guys I was coaching bet me I couldn’t run 6.9 seconds for sixty metres. It was a bit of fun.’
There follows what is a version of one of the more familiar sporting arguments of our times, but one he pursues with passion: ‘Everyone knows there is a problem with nandrolone testing … The guy forgot to send my sample to the lab, he took it home, he had it in his garage, then in his fridge … I spent three or four hundred thousand pounds fighting this, and at the end I just thought stop being an arse, you have a family … they banned me knowing the tests were flawed. My test was so high but then a week or so later I was tested again and completely clear … There is no way that amount of the drug could have disappeared … ’ And so on.
Christie looks both pained and resigned at all of this. He knows that his friends don’t need an explanation and his enemies won’t believe one, but he feels obliged to give it anyway. I recall that when he tested positive for a substance called ephedrine after the 1988 Olympic final in Seoul he says he contemplated suicide before he was exonerated after making the excuse that he drank ginseng tea. It is somewhat in this spirit that finally he looks at me, with those eyes that used to stare so fixedly down at the finish line. ‘The fact is I can sleep at night,’ he says. ‘I love all my kids dearly and I can swear on their lives that I would never and have never taken anything to enhance my performance. That’s all I can say.’
There is, I suggest, not much I can say to that either.
In many ways the drug scandal made an inevitable coda to Linford Christie’s remarkable career, in which self-justification and controversy ran neck and neck with his success. One of things that made him so compelling to watch as an athlete was that he always seemed to be as focused on the struggle for proper recognition as on the 40-odd strides of his races. As his team-mate Derek Redmond observed: ‘Linford is a very well balanced athlete: he has a chip on both shoulders.’
On the website of his sports management company, still pointedly titled ‘Nuff Respect, he likes to refer to himself as ‘Britain’s greatest ever athlete’, but he could never quite make that mantle stick. Even after the golden moment of his track career, his imperious Olympic 100m victory in 1992, Christie says now that he felt flat, empty, as if he was preparing for a backlash as soon as he crossed the line. And, true to form, it came. In the following days’ papers plenty of space was given over to Carl Lewis, ‘who hadn’t been good enough to make the American team, but was telling everyone that he would have beaten me’. Much of the rest, Christie does not need to add, was devoted to ‘Linford’s lunchbox’, a stereotype he loathed.
In all of this Christie saw himself being caricatured because of his colour. He was always a great patriot; as a small child in Jamaica, he says, he sang ‘God Save the Queen’, and it was his proudest moment when he captained the British team in 1992. But he equally never forgot that he had been reprimanded by some team officials early in his international career for draping himself in the Union flag, which was considered ‘inappropriate’. He says he was not brought up to jump to racial explanations, but sometimes they are hard to avoid.
This red, white and blue theme in his career not only made some white officials uneasy, it also, according to the social commentator and New Statesman columnist Darcus Howe, caused some consternation among the West Indian community in Britain. ‘When he always wrapped himself in the flag it made many black people I knew squirm,’ Howe told me. ‘It seemed that he was trying to ingratiate himself with the establishment.’
It would be odd, Howe suggests, for anyone with Linford’s background to have such a powerful identification with Queen and country - ‘after all Jamaica gained independence in 1962’. Howe’s son went to Christie’s school in Hammersmith, at a time when Christie was just beginning to come to prominence in the Eighties, but the sprinter was not considered a particular role model for boys, even those, such as his son, who enjoyed athletics. ‘They were very much into a black power thing, talking Jamaican at school, and Christie did not seem part of that.’
In some senses, you might therefore see Christie as caught between two cultures, trying to make his way in a team in which Coe, say, trained listening to Wagner through the open window of his father’s car. Even so there were never any problems among the athletes. ‘We have long been a racially harmonious team in athletics,’ he says. ‘But we need more black people in certain positions. I mean 60 per cent of the athletes are black, but you don’t see any black faces in the management. We are allowed to be coaches, but we can’t rule. I’m not saying I want to be a blazer. I see some ex-athletes trying to get their VIP accreditation, to get them access to this and this. I have no interest in that. I am there for the athletes I coach. I was always staying in the athletes’ village rather than a hotel. That’s what gets me when I see certain ex-athletes criticising me. They were always off on their own. What did they ever do for the team or to inspire the next generation? What are they doing now?’
As if to prove the point, when I meet Christie he is in Manchester, with his friend and protégé Darren Campbell, who won silver in the 200m at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, to promote their initiative, the Street Sprint Challenge. It is an effort to get more kids involved in the sport and this first outing has been a great success. ‘When I was young,’ Christie says, ‘you raced from one end of the street to the other, or round the block. That is what we are trying here.’
For a month or so Christie and Campbell have travelled round some of the rougher parts of the city, set up tracks in car parks and invited kids to run. More than a thousand had taken part in the challenge and the search for future Olympians had thrown up one or two surprises. ‘We had one of the best 14-year-olds in Britain in one heat,’ Christie says, ‘and this other kid just came off the street in his trainers and jeans and ran past him.’
Christie knows all about this kind of early promise and the ways in which it can go astray. The one-time fastest man in the world wasn’t even the fastest boy in his school in Hammersmith. ‘There were a couple of other kids faster than me,’ he says. ‘I still remember their names as if it were yesterday. I’ve bumped into them a couple of times since and things haven’t gone so well for them and you know even now my soul goes out to them. I wasn’t the fastest, I was just the luckiest. Teachers saw something in me. They pushed me to join a club. I have often thought, “Why me?” I can only feel it was my destiny in some way.’
Even so, it took Christie a long time to accept his fate. He was 28 before he made the Olympic team (a spectacular late flowering that always fuelled suspicions about the causes of his sudden success), for the Seoul Games in 1988. He says it was a cultural thing as much as anything. In a West Indian family at that time sport was something you did when you had nothing else to do. ‘You helped around the home, you did your schoolwork and then you got a job, that was your priority. No one knew really you could make a career from sport.’
When he did start to take it more seriously, Christie says, he had already got all of his demons out of his system; he had had some years of partying, he had three kids from two short-term relationships, he knew what he wanted. ‘I was in a room with these guys from athletics and I said I wanted to be Olympic Champion. They all said, at 26, I was already too old. I said, “They say that your sexual peak is at 19, but how many of you guys believe that?” They all laughed. But they knew I was right, too.’
If Christie needed another example of a life in which he did not fulfil his talent there was always his brother Russell, two years his junior. In 1997 Russell Christie died in a drugs-related knife fight near Portobello Road, in west London. As a boy, according to his father, he could have been a greater athlete than Linford. He was the one who seemed to have the special talent. But other stereotypes for young black men proved hard for him to resist. On the night that Christie won his gold medal in Barcelona, a warrant was issued for Russell’s arrest for theft and handling stolen goods; a few times he ended up in Wormwood Scrubs jail, which stands adjacent to the Linford Christie Stadium. I wonder, looking back, what kind of effect Russell’s life and death had on his elder brother.
‘I try not to dwell on it,’ Christie says. ‘Within what gifts you are given you can change certain events in your life and some people choose not to do that. The fact is I had a very different upbringing from my brother. I grew up until I was seven in Jamaica with my grandmother, who I still think of as the greatest person I have known in my life. Everything in Jamaica was so different. I was shocked when I came to London [where his parents had emigrated, with baby Russell, five years previously]. I had been taught that when a grown-up spoke to you, you stood up and you looked them in the eye and you said “sir”. Here people were calling grown-ups by their first names. I think had my brother grown up in Jamaica with us his sense of values would have been very different.’
The pair of them were at different schools and, while most of Linford’s friends were ‘kind of non-smokers, into sport, his friends were partygoers, you know, and then when I was training he was out on the town or whatever’. By all accounts Linford spent many years trying to help his brother. ‘I did what I could,’ he says, ‘he was my flesh and blood. There comes a point, though, when you can’t help. Sometimes maybe I was too soft, sometimes I was probably too harsh. But in the end I could not help him, he had to make his own life. You have to accept that.’
The death of his brother did not shake his sense of purpose or indeed of destiny. He retains a religious faith.‘I believe there is a God; I believe He will come again. It was always funny in the warm-up area before a race because everyone was praying. Even the atheists were crossing themselves. It’s all, you know, “Help me, God, to win”. And once you do win you begin to wonder what makes you more sincere in your prayers than the next guy. You even begin to think, damn, maybe I’ve done something right that I didn’t realise and it has helped me. Anyway, that’s the way I was brought up: in all things give praise.’
This spirit and his still imposing physical presence no doubt make Christie an inspiring coach to those in his circle: Campbell, Christian Malcolm and Ashia Hansen. He says he would love to be involved in the British team as an official coach or some kind of mentor, ‘there are so few of us who have actually been there’, but he can’t really see that happening. I imagine that watching the travails of the prodigal Mark Lewis-Francis at the recent world championships in Helsinki must have made him want to take Britain’s wayward sprinting hope under his wing, and tell him all he knows. Does he still see in Lewis-Francis a comparable talent to his own?
He grins his big grin. ‘I like Mark a lot,’ he says. ‘I honestly believe there is a lot I can do for him. I’ve tried talking to him in the past, but people were always saying I was trying to poach Mark from his current coaches. Poaching is not my thing. I would rather try to educate the coach so the coach can help the athlete. This winter Mark was doing little bits and pieces with me. I gave him a couple of training sessions so he could go back to his coach and try one or two things, but it just did not work. He seems to have just stopped at some point.’
What Lewis-Francis has yet to learn, Christie says, and what he himself took a long time to grasp, is that you cannot compromise your talent. ‘Our sport is cruel in that, whether you are the most gifted or the least, the training is exactly the same. I tell him: you will wake up, sooner than you think at 30, or 40, and there will be a voice in your head saying, “I could have been Olympic champion”. Do you want to hear that voice for the rest of your life?’
Most of the time when he is talking, Christie is smiling, half-giggling. For someone who often seems so laid-back I suggest that he has always found it quite easy to make enemies. He and Colin Jackson and John Regis, in particular, one-time business partners, are now hardly on speaking terms. In Jackson’s autobiography the former hurdler described murderous feelings towards his long-time friend: ‘We didn’t work well at all,’ he wrote. ‘I was more thoughtful than Linford, I had more direction, and I wasn’t so backward thinking as he was. Basically he wasn’t in touch with reality at all.’ Jackson wanted out of 'Nuff Respect but the pair could not agree compensation. A meeting was arranged but Christie failed to show up and an angry Jackson contemplated torching their office building. ‘I was so furious that I was ready to kill.’
In the end he decided against arson and instead cleared the company account of the money he believed he was owed, £55,000.
Christie was furious then, but laughs a bit now. ‘Colin and I were business partners,’ he says. ‘I coached John. But sometimes people have short memories. You get to be like brothers with these people. And what family never do is air their dirty laundry in public. Sometimes these people forget that. You would never see me slagging people off, except when they attack me, like Seb; I will react if people say things, but otherwise I keep things close.’
I wonder if he believes there is something in all champions, some absolute single-mindedness that makes them difficult to work with, and perhaps even unites him and his nemesis Lord Coe?
He laughs. ‘Well, we all have ambitions. But I am not going to shit on someone to get where I want. I would always walk around you. To some extent all champions behave a certain way. You have to have that attitude. On the track I was not out there to be liked. After the race, I tried to be cool.’
Christie, when not fighting to clear his name his name, has for the most part remained cool in retirement, somewhat against stereotypes. He puts this down to the fact that he was always preparing for it: ‘You always know one day you are the best in the world, next day you are not and you have to find ways to live with that.’ He has channelled a lot of his energies into his passion for gardening. It began when he bought his first house in Acton in 1986. ‘The guy had this amazing garden. He said, “I’ll accept your offer if you promise to keep the garden in good shape”. So I went out and bought all the gardening books I could find and read them obsessively. And I found if you went into garden centres and started using Latin names, you got all the best plants.’
This knowledge has led to a gardening TV series on the BBC; he offered green-fingered tips to Guardian readers for a while (‘Linford, can you suggest screening plants to hide a wall?’ 'First, I’d suggest the evergreen climbers pyrocanthus and ceanothus. Pyrocanthus is easy to grow and has cream flowers in the spring - birds love its autumn berries, while its thorns can bring some extra security to your walled area … ').
The other source of constant stability is his family. He has three young children with his partner of 22 years, Mandy.
‘There are no stories in happy families,’ he says. ‘When I was young I did some things, had some problems. But when I was a man I like to think I put away childish things. The first and most important thing about me is that I am a man. I’m not principally a black man. I’m a man. Beyond that I’ve never known my place, why should I?’
I wonder how easy it was to be a father to the children he had in his youth, in relationships that did not last.
‘It’s been difficult,’ he says. ‘I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t. I don’t really talk about these things. But it has been hard. I was young and it’s a bit easier now than it was before. I have three younger kids now, too. They are my world. I suppose there is no such thing as loving too much, but I realise what I did in the past. I do have another chance… We all meet up sometimes, at my Dad’s or whatever. And my elder children are all their own people now, grown men and women. They may have questions as they go on and I will try to answer them as honestly as I can.’
I ask what his young daughters make of their Dad’s former life as the fastest man in the world. ‘I only got my kids to watch some of my races once,’ he says. ‘They were interested but eventually they said, “Why are we watching this?” I said that’s where your new bike came from. They still don’t understand why people sometimes stop me in the street.’
Later, I go down to the square outside Manchester town hall, where the finals of his street sprints are being held. Christie allows fellow Olympic gold medallist Darren Campbell (who helped win the sprint relay in Athens) to take most of the attention. Christie stands on the sidelines and watches the children, with their T-shirts saying Moss Side and Gorton and Fallowfield, line up to race. The children are animated, genuinely excited to be in the centre of town having people see how quick they are; some have kit, some don’t; some are tiny, some are fully grown, but once the gun goes none of that matters. As they charge down the track, I watch Christie’s face, still wondering what he knows, his features never forgetting how it feels to run like the wind.
• Tim Adams is the author of Being John McEnroe (Yellow Jersey)
‘And on line one now … Linford’
Linford Christie’s bitterness at Sebastian Coe surfaced in a very public arena in February 2002, a year after their initial row. Coe was a guest on Radio Five, answering questions from presenter Simon Mayo and his listeners, who included at least one fellow Olympic gold medallist. ‘And next on the line is … Linford from London,’ a nervous host announced.
‘It’s the first time we have spoken about this,’ Christie said. 'All I want to say is that you were totally misinformed in what you wrote about me, and I just want you to say you are sorry. My problem is with the IAAF, because they banned me for something I didn’t do.
‘You misinterpreted my comments and your article was misinformed. I would never criticise the volunteers in Britain who do so much work for youngsters in our sport - I am one. The reason I said I didn’t want my children to go into athletics is because no matter how good they were they would always be compared to Linford Christie. I’ve never stated that I am a role model.’
But Coe gave no ground. ‘I wasn’t misinformed,’ he said. ‘I had your article in front of me when I wrote what I considered to be a well thought-out piece. British athletics is not corrupt, the volunteers who help out are not corrupt. I also don’t accept that the IAAF is corrupt and I want my children to take up athletics.’ Coe maintained that the row was about sport, not friendship.
A long discussion followed but neither man refused to yield, Christie concluded: ‘I thought we were friends, we go way, way back, but I’m gonna go now, I can see where he’s coming from.’