Linford Christie

An old article from Sports Illustrated 17 June 1996: Vol. 84 Issue 24. p. 74-77;



In the final 200-meter training sprint of the afternoon, Linford Christie cruises into the turn, last among four runners and very much the largest of them, making it appear that they are children and he is some wronged authority figure chasing them down. When they straighten for home, the leaders tighten and Christie swallows them whole, his knees lifting to his waist, his cadence never slowing. "Fooling around with us,’’ says one of the beaten, 1992 Olympic 110-meter- hurdle gold medalist Mark McKoy. Christie steps off the track and walks alone across the soft grass infield, hands on hips, sharp spikes taking small divots.

This concludes an April day during which Christie, a 36-year-old Jamaican-born Briton, has heaped a crushing workout on himself and 10 other athletes training together in Gainesville, Fla. “We go until Linford passes out, and that never happens,” says Jamaican sprinter Juliet Cuthbert, winner of two silver medals at the 1992 Games. Christie has lifted weights for more than two hours, crunched through 400 sit-ups, spent another 90 minutes on the track and reiterated that he is not preparing for the Olympics.

Never mind that Christie is the defending champion in the 100 meters. Or that he treasures little in life more than beating American sprinters and that to do so at the Atlanta Games, on U.S. soil, would be the sweetest victory of all. Forget that no man since Charles Hahn at the turn of the century has crossed the line first in consecutive Olympic 100s (Carl Lewis is in the record books as the gold medalist in 1984 and '88, but he received the latter only after Ben Johnson was required to forfeit the gold when he tested positive for steroids).

The Games, Christie says, are coincidental to his training. “Too much fuss is being made about me running in Atlanta,” he says, lying on his side next to the track. “I might run. I might not.” Choose your rationale for this coyness: Christie is tired of scrutiny by the relentless British tabloids; Christie, who can make a meet and therefore can command as much as $50,000 simply for showing up, is trying to drive up his appearance fee in this, his final season; Christie knows that he can no longer run. He turns on his broad back and laughs up at the sun, basking in the orchestrated mystery.

Another of Christie’s great pleasures is watching others try to figure him out. How does an old man run so fast? Is he on the juice? Is he the nasty, glowering figure who comes to race, or the carefree spirit so loved by his friends? Now he floats the best question: Can the defending Olympic gold medalist, healthy and on the verge of writing history, walk away from the Games?

And here’s perhaps the most intriguing paradox. Christie’s upper body is a piece of athletic art: A 6’2", 210-pound package with the thick chest and shoulders of a linebacker cut to a bodybuilder’s definition. It’s a body that makes an audience fall silent when he stands behind his blocks. Yet his mind is his greatest weapon.

“In track and field we don’t touch people with our hands or our bodies,” says John Smith, who coaches sprinters Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Jon Drummond of the U.S., among others. “We have to touch people with our minds. They say an actor steals the light, makes you feel his presence. That’s what Linford does on the track.”

His rivals sense Christie’s presence now, in the final weeks before the Games. This plan of his, to leave himself undeclared for the Olympics when it seems so obvious that he will run, hasn’t deceived any of his opponents. He left Florida in early May and returned to his base in London, from where he has taken up a racing schedule that is fully Olympian. On May 12 he won the 100 at a minor meet in Germany; he won both the 100 and the 200 at the European Cup on June 1 and 2 in Madrid; he finished second, beaten by a stride in a 100 on June 5 in Rome; and last Friday in Nuremberg, he beat Donovan Bailey of Canada, who won the 100 at last summer’s world championships. Although he’s guaranteed a spot on the British Olympic team if he wants it, Christie will run the 100 in the British Olympic trials on June 14 to 16 in Birmingham. “Do you really think Linford would be out there training this hard to run a few Grand Prix meets?” asks Bailey. “He’ll be in Atlanta, don’t worry.” Says U.S. sprinter Dennis Mitchell, the bronze medalist behind Christie four years ago, “I’m training for him to be there.”

They must prepare for Christie, because he has been the dominant presence in sprinting since he won in Barcelona. That victory was followed by a world championship in the 100 in Stuttgart in 1993. Christie’s rise has coincided with the decline of U.S. sprinting (no gold medals in the Olympics or world championships since '91). “He’s taken on the Americans all by himself, and he loves to beat them,” says Ron Roddan, Christie’s coach of 16 years. There are other good sprinters, of course, but no one else has imposed his will on the sport as Christie has, ruling not just with speed but also with intimidation. “The man has a size on him that would intimidate anybody, and it does,” says Smith.

Away from the track, friends know Christie as a jaunty, spirited man, full of energy and humor. Before one workout in Gainesville in April, he regaled British sprinters Darren Campbell and Adrian Patrick with long, preposterous stories of his Jamaican youth, of tying leashes on lizards and of putting oversized dragonflies on tethers and watching them fly in circles. “It was fun, man, you had to make your own toys,” Christie said, laughing. “He cooks for us. How many men do that?” says veteran Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey.

But in competition his persona is altogether different. Standing apart from the other runners, refusing to acknowledge their presence, he scowls as the field assembles near the starting line. “You can shake my hand, hug me, kiss me, whatever you want, after the race,” Christie says. He learned from the older sprinters of his youth, like 1976 Olympic gold medalist Hasely Crawford of Trinidad, who would bounce around the starting line, singing, “I be smokin’ tonight, man, smokin’ tonight . . . .” Says Christie, “I would just shrink away.”

Now he’s the force. “I believe I’m the best, they believe I’m the best,” Christie says. “I suppose if I put myself in their shoes, I’d be afraid of me too.”

So it is difficult to imagine Atlanta without him. “I have no doubt he will be there,” says Lewis. “Anger has always made Linford good, and I think Linford is angry about some things.”

Not angry. Afraid. This fear forms the core of Christie’s motivation. He’s skilled at using his mind to chip away at opponents’ fragile psyches, but he worries that he will be remembered as something less than a great champion by his peers, by the media and by the British. By history.

Misperceptions begin with stories about his youth, memories of which he has always guarded, until now. He was the middle child of seven born to James and Mabel Christie, who moved the family from Jamaica to a modest home in London a few years later. “It’s always been portrayed that I grew up in poverty, which is what happens when you’re black in England,” says Christie. “We weren’t rich, but we got along.”

Christie left school at 16 and held a variety of jobs while training, uncommittedly, under Roddan from 1980 to '86. During this period he partied as much as he trained, and he fathered three children out of wedlock. He has a 17-year-old son, Merrick Osborne, and 10-year-old twins, Liam and Korrell Oliver. Osborne last summer fathered a daughter, Shakira, which means that Christie is not only the defending 100-meter gold medalist but also a grandfather. “I was young, I made mistakes,” says Christie, “but I made a change in my life a long time ago.” He has been with his girlfriend, Mandy Miller, for nearly 12 years and is known more now for his reclusiveness than for the hours he keeps.

Athletically, he was prodded in the summer of 1985 when both Roddan and Andy Norman, the powerful promotions officer for British Athletics, the governing body for track and field in Great Britain, sent letters to him saying, in effect, use your talent or get lost. That lit a fire, and the next year Christie lowered his 100-meter best from 10.42 to 10.04, an astonishing drop. He was third behind Johnson and Lewis at the '88 Olympics and, in 1991, at the world championships in Tokyo, ran 9.92, a time that would have been second-fastest in history before the race but earned him only fourth place. Lewis won in a then world record 9.86, followed by Leroy Burrell in 9.88 and Mitchell in 9.91. Six runners broke 10 seconds in this transcendent sprint, and it nearly finished Christie. “Nine-nine-two and finish bloody fourth,” says Roddan. “I talked him into giving it one more year.” He was 31 at the time, and five years have passed since then, during which Christie has won his Olympic gold and the '93 worlds. (He pulled his hamstring more than halfway through the 100 at last summer’s worlds and limped in sixth.)

But there are asterisks, both real and imagined. Lewis didn’t make the U.S. team for Barcelona in the 100 meters, so although Christie won, he didn’t take down the king. “It all started with Tokyo in 1991,” says Burrell. “Everybody ran a personal record in that race, but only Carl won. The rest of us were shell-shocked.”

Lewis’s shadow engulfs Christie, never giving him room to create his own history or define his own era. Their relationship was cordial until 1988, when Lewis won a 200 in Sestriere, Italy, and Christie came in fifth in the 100. British hurdler Colin Jackson, a close friend of Christie’s, recalls that Lewis said afterward to Christie, “When you can run, you can talk,” an apparent reference to Christie’s growing bravado. “From then on, there was no friendship between them,” says Jackson. “Linford believes that Carl should step down, give Linford his time.”

Says Christie, “Carl was the greatest of his time, I’m the greatest of my time. Our times just crossed a little.” Lewis, who is actually 15 months younger than Christie, will have none of the fight. “Linford just wants to win, badly,” says Lewis, reborn this spring and suddenly a contender for his third Olympic 100 final. “He’s a talent, he’s a competitor, and he sticks it in there under pressure.” The pressure began building two months ago and hasn’t stopped. The Americans are flying. Mitchell has run 9.93 and Lewis 9.94 with a barely illegal wind; Mike Marsh has run a legal 9.95. And Boldon of Trinidad has run a 1996 world best of 9.92.

But there is another issue that stalks Christie, a subject that lives only in whispers but is impossible for him to dismiss. “Christie got older, bigger and faster at the same time,” says a U.S. agent who represents a number of sprinters. “We all know how that happens.” Such talk infuriates Christie. He says that he has undergone drug testing hundreds of times. He has been met at Heathrow Airport and asked for a urine sample, he has been awakened from a nap at his home and asked for a sample. He has been clean every time.

He fights back time by lifting weights ferociously and training 12 months a year, whether it’s an Olympic year or not. Who is clean? Who is not? It is an answerless question. “The bottom line is work,” says Smith. “This guy works.”

Christie is sprawled on a couch in a condominium complex in Gainesville. “I hope people don’t ever forget who I am,” he says, but he knows this can’t be accomplished with words alone. The rest of the world is running faster than at any time since 1991. If legacy is so important, he must go to Atlanta. A victory there would provide an ending that couldn’t be ignored.

“My god, it sure would,” he says, nodding softly. “It sure would.” Then he shakes away the dream and laughs himself back to the present. “But, of course,” he says, “I’m not even thinking about any of that.”

In a lucrative showdown Linford Christie beat his `old’ rival, Carl Lewis

GOLD MEDALS? WHAT CARL Lewis really covets are gold watches. Why else would he privately announce his retirement, oh, a hundred times in the last decade, according to his friends’ best estimates? I think he retired after the '84 Olympics,'' says U.S. sprinter Mike Marsh, who shakes his head glumly in imitation of his famous teammate, muttering to himself, `I’m through, man. I’m through. . . .’ ‘’

Give the man a gold Rolex, for goodness’ sake. Not because Lewis is anywhere near retirement, but for a quite different reason: Carl Lewis cannot keep track of time. These days the World’s Fastest Man must be wearing the World’s Slowest Wristwatch. Lewis doesn’t seem to realize that he’s 32 years old – 106 in sprinters’ years. At 32 one does not command a $150,000 fee to run 100 meters, though Lewis was paid that much to do just that last Friday night in the north of England.

At 32 one does not run in the richest track race ever held on British soil, against the sport’s other great star, himself a man of 33. The biggest race of the year,'' Lewis said on the eve of his 100-meter showdown with England's Linford Christie, the '92 Olympic gold medalist who was also paid $150,000 to compete at this invitational meet in Gateshead. And it’s between two guys in their 30’s who are both supposed to be over the hill.’’

Lewis knew that the Dash for Cash was not the biggest race on this year’s ``shed-yool,’’ as they say hereabouts. Lewis and Christie will meet at least once again over the next two weeks, almost certainly for the world crown – and more riches – in Stuttgart, Aug. 14 and 15. On your deutsche marks, get set. . . .

No, if the result of last Friday’s eight-man race had really mattered, Lewis would not have kited into England on the Concorde only 24 hours before the gun went off at Gateshead International Stadium. Not surprisingly, he looked flat as airline soda in running a 10.22 on a slow, cold track – finishing behind Christie (10.08) and Jon Drummond, a 24-year-old American who dang near won with a 10.12. No, what really mattered, as Lewis said afterward, was this: ``It was a great race for the sport.’’

The world was watching, with the notable exception of the United States. ``Hey, America, where are you?’’ asked Lewis’s manager, Joe Douglas, contemptuous not of the nation’s track and field fans but of the sport’s inert governing body. As charismatic and accomplished in his field as Ali and Pele were in theirs, Lewis somehow remains a much bigger star in Europe than he is in America. Is he Carl Lewis, or is he Jerry Lewis?

Lewis was accorded rock-star status upon arriving in London from the U.S. When Lewis disembarked from the Concorde, his head was swaddled in a Stars and Stripes bandanna of his own design, and a peace symbol dangled from one earlobe. When you’re Carl Lewis, a connecting flight catches you at Heathrow. An hour later he touched down in Newcastle, where a police van took him from tarmac to terminal, where a throng of reporters awaited. After pollinating the airport with enthusiastic comments on the race (``It’s a show, it’s fun, it’s great drama,’’ he said), Lewis was borne by navy-blue Rolls-Royce to Newcastle’s finest hotel, where this regal athlete would be sequestered in the Castle Suite.

Lewis has lighted up more rooms than Commonwealth Edison. Christie, on the other hand, was once described as having a balanced temperament – which is to say he carries a chip on both shoulders. There will be only one winner in Gateshead,'' he said a week before the race, and it won’t be Carl Lewis.’’ For his part, Lewis has accused Christie of ducking him during the previous year.

They should have met at the Olympics last summer. But Lewis, the eight-time Olympic gold medalist in the sprints, relays and long jump, winner of three consecutive world championships in the 100, failed to qualify for the 100 in Barcelona. So Christie, who finished second to Lewis in Seoul in 1988, won the gold last summer in 9.96 seconds. Because of Lewis’s absence, however, Christie’s victory was said to ring hollow.

At Christie’s request, Drummond was entered into the sprint and placed at the great Briton’s immediate left, in lane 3. Christie hoped to use Drummond, a quick starter, as a rabbit out of the chute. After one false start, which only heightened tensions, that is exactly what Christie did. Lewis, in lane 5, stayed with Christie for the first 30 meters. ``Then his legs went dead,’’ Douglas said afterward.

I came from 95-degree heat in Houston,'' said Lewis. Maybe that took a little bit of sting out of my legs.’’

Without Lewis’s customary late-race power surge, Christie beat him by 1 1/2 meters but won only after straining past Drummond in the final 20. People have said I was too old since I was 26,'' said Christie afterward. Then I won [in Barcelona] at 32. I am a winner.’’

That he would be around to win the gold last year was never a certainty. Like Lewis – who now says he hopes to race through the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta – Christie toyed with retirement. He did so in 1991 after he ran a personal record of 9.92 at the world championships in Tokyo but lost. Can you imagine,'' he said after that historic sprint, running a 9.92 and finishing fourth?’’ Of course, the first of the three men who finished ahead of Christie was Lewis, who set the world record of 9.86 in that race.

Thankfully, neither Lewis nor Christie opted for the gold watch, though the former has forsaken the long jump to concentrate solely on the 100 this season. Among those who urged Christie to stay in the game was Lewis, so that – if nothing else – there would be someone older than him out there. ``The two oldest guys in the sport put bums on seats,’’ Christie said after Friday night’s race.

As for Lewis, he is certain he can still run as fast as he ever has, which is fast enough to make the earth rotate in the opposite direction. I know I can run under 10 seconds this year,'' he says. And that will put me in any race.’’

The scary thing is, nobody disputes him. The knowledge of a few years ago said you couldn't run past age 26,'' says Marsh, who just turned 26. For guys to be doing this at 32 and 33 says a lot about those scientific theories – and says a lot to the rest of us coming up, as well.’’

That’s the beautiful thing about being Carl Lewis: When you’ve run the final leg of relay races all your life, you think you never have to pass the baton.