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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN [Linford Christie stretching]
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Though Christie (695) got gold in Barcelona, his win was tarnished since he didn't beat Lewis to do it. [Linford Christie in race]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Pals find Christie (in Gainesville) eminently approachable. [Linford Christie and others on track]