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Alone at The Top

Aug. 29, 1994
Aug. 29, 1994

Table of Contents
Aug. 29, 1994

College Football '94
SI 40th Anniversary
Point After

Alone at The Top

The finest sprinter on earth strode magnificently through the lobby of the Hotel Nova-Park Zurich last Thursday morning, slowing only when he saw the bloodstains that stared up from the carpet like stoplights.

This is an article from the Aug. 29, 1994 issue Original Layout

Linford Christie of England would soon hear the news. Two of the men he had beaten in the 100 meters in 10.05 seconds at the Weltklasse the night before had fought savagely in the crowded hotel four hours after the sprint. At about 2 a.m. Thursday, Dennis Mitchell of the U.S. kicked Olapade Adeniken of Nigeria in the head, repeatedly, while the latter was pinned to the lobby carpet by two other men. The fight is said to have escalated from a petty argument that had begun a few days earlier at an airline-ticket counter in Durham, N.C.

"I think it was only a matter of time," Christie was saying after lunch in a Brussels hotel on Friday, reflecting on the chilling aftermath of his rain-soaked victory in Zurich. "Sprinters are very aggressive people. Hurdlers, for example, can talk to each other; sprinters cannot. Hurdlers go against barriers, but sprinters go against each other. Of course, even in such an environment you should always be in control. It's a shame this happened."

The trash-talking, duck-walking men of the world-class sprints increasingly resemble heavyweight boxers, with each race a claim for world supremacy, each sprint a violent expenditure of energy, each sprinter a member of a territorial clique: Carl Lewis and Leroy Burrell, Mitchell and Jon Drummond, Adeniken and his countrymen. But in this world Christie remains an island of solitude, like Great Britain herself.

On Friday night in Brussels he found familiar ground: lane 4 at Heysel Stadium, with one American (Drummond) receding on his left flank and another (Mitchell) receding on his right, and the rest of the field fanning out on cither side, like geese flying in formation behind him. Christie won his second consecutive Grand Prix race, this one in 10.03 seconds. Four months beyond his 34th birthday—astonishing for a world-class sprinter—he is the reigning Olympic, world and European champion, a man very much alone atop his increasingly unpleasant profession.

"Mentally, it's all very taxing," says Christie. "Because at the end of the day, no matter how many athletes have broken 10 seconds or set world records, I am The Guy out there. I'm the Olympic champion. I'm always the only European going against four or live Americans. It's like me versus all the rest. And it's very, very lonely."

The loneliness of the short-distance runner is not a phrase that sings, but Christie has known that emotion throughout much of his life. Born in Jamaica, he moved at age seven to the West End of London, where his father worked as a porter for the BBC. One of his two brothers has been in and out of jail in England, and Christie himself was wrongfully arrested for possessing a stolen car. That was in 1988, the year he finished second to Lewis at the Olympics in Seoul. In fact, the car had been given to Christie by a rental agency, and a court would eventually award him a £30,000 judgment against London's Metropolitan Police.

On the track he has been similarly tormented. To this day Christie is regularly mocked by Lewis ("Linford who?" Lewis said when asked at the Goodwill Games about his rival), even though Christie is the elder of the two senior sprinters. (Lewis, who is 15 months younger, is now laid up in Houston, recovering from something he ate in St. Petersburg.)

None of this matters to the public in Europe, where Christie is a genuine superstar. But having never competed in the United States, Christie is all but unrecognized on visits to New York, where two of his siblings reside. Christie was recently strolling down Fifth Avenue when he heard a pedestrian say, "Ain't that the dude who beat Carl Lewis?"

"Naw," replied another man. "No one can beat Carl Lewis."

He laughs, "I read stories about Carl," says Christie, who has in fact beaten Lewis, most recently at the world championships in Stuttgart last summer. "He hasn't broken 10 since '91, but he has that gift of gab, he keeps fooling everybody, making people believe that he's on top. He thinks he's immortal. But no one lives forever." Christie adds, shrugging, "He was a great champion," but the word was hangs in the air like humidity.

"When people talk about sprinting, they only talk about Carl and Leroy," Mitchell concurred before he stopped speaking to reporters following his ugly hotel brawl last week. In fact, neither Lewis nor Burrell is competing now. Burrell, 27, set the world record of 9.85 in Lausanne, Switzerland, in July, and ran well (two first-place finishes and one second) in the six weeks that ensued. But in Zurich he finished seventh and injured a ligament in his right foot, ending his season. The 25-year-old Adeniken, meanwhile, chose to fly home to Austin, Texas, from Zurich, where he was treated for a mild concussion and given two stitches in his head. He, too, did not comment on the fight, in which he bloodied Mitchell's face with karate kicks.

And so Christie stands astride the globe, while all about him young men are flaring out in his wake. He is thankful now that he did not become a full-time athlete until the advanced age of 25. Before then he was working with troubled youths in London, and for something called the IRS. "It's the same as the American IRS," Christie explains, grinning sheepishly. "That's why I don't like to mention it very often."

He says that he will retire in two years "maximum" and may look for property in Tampa at the end of this season, something near the vacation home of his friend Colin Jackson, the British hurdler. Christie will run in Atlanta in '96 only if he feels he can win gold there. "At a certain point it becomes like boxing," he says. "You see the young fighters coming up, sparring partners start to hurt you, pretty soon someone punches you flat out in the face and you think, Why am I doing this? Look at Foreman and Ali. I'm not going out like that."

Sadly, the fight analogy is again appropriate: The International Amateur Athletic Federation is unlikely to take disciplinary action against Mitchell, 28, or Adeniken—a hand-puppet IAAF investigator called the brawl "a private matter" between the sprinters—so there is little to deter a repeat performance. Indeed, such an encore is expected by some. "The smell of testosterone was in that lobby," says one witness to the fight, who adds ominously: "Whatever they say, this is not over."

Only Christie, it seems, can feel entirely safe among his fellow sprinters these days. For whenever he runs, seven men are watching his back.

PHOTOBOB MARTINChristie beat the field in Brussels after two of his rivals beat on each other.