A sprinter in search of sanctuary had best deliver himself to
Oslo in July. He should go to the weathered concrete walls and
pale red running oval of Bislett Stadium, where once each summer
distance records are chased with uncommon passion while the
crowd desperately urges on every attempt. "This is our Fenway
Park, this wonderful old dinosaur," Lynn Jennings of the U.S.
said after winning the women's 5,000 meters at last Friday's
Bislett Games then running a joyous victory lap. In Bislett
Stadium sprinters are dutifully cheered, distance runners are
held in a long embrace.
Friday night the fans tethered themselves to Moses Kiptanui, a
23-year-old Kenyan, sweeping him to within 1.28 seconds of his
own world record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. And then they
pushed Vanuste Niyongabo, a 21-year-old from Burundi, to a
3:30.78 in the 1,500, the best time in the world this year not
run by the untouchable Noureddine Morceli.
A sprinter is easily forgotten in Bislett Stadium, even when he
is a world and Olympic champion and a tabloid celebrity in his
own country. As he coiled into his blocks for the 100 meters,
facing into the unending Norwegian summer sun, Linford Christie
of England bore the peculiar mix of bravado and paranoia. He is
certain that he remains the best big-event sprinter in the world
yet declares that he will not defend his Olympic 100-meter title
in Atlanta next summer. "I love athletics dearly," Christie said
on the day before Bislett. "But when you love something, it's
supposed to be fun. And I just don't want to feel any more
pressure in my life."
At Bislett, Christie blended into the carnival montage, and this
is why Oslo was the perfect place for him on Friday. "Me and the
track and the people," Christie explained. He has proven himself
a remarkable athlete, with his sustained greatness at 35, a
preposterous age for a sprinter. Yet the last five months have
roiled Christie, who has found his life splashed in the British
media alongside your Princess Dianas and your Hugh Grants, and
he rails at the unfairness of it all.
His latest round of headlines began in March when he
unexpectedly pulled out of the world indoor championships in
Barcelona and was thrown into a quarrel with the International
Amateur Athletic Federation. Christie maintains that he had
never committed to run. On June 12 he made an emotional
appearance on British television and announced that he will
retire at the end of this season. He cited his battles with the
British Athletics Federation over appearance money and with the
media over everything from his age to veiled accusations of
steroid use (Christie has never tested positive for steroids in
his 10-year international career) to comically puritanical
criticism for wearing the same immodest unitard that all
world-class sprinters wear. Three days after his television
appearance, Christie's mother, Mabel, died of cancer, and that
pushed the media's interest in him into the realm of the lurid.
More than a dozen photographers attended the funeral; one called
Christie's father and requested a shot of his wife's body.
"The British media wouldn't even allow me to grieve," Christie
said in Oslo. He stands firm on his decision not to run in
Atlanta. "In the beginning all I wanted to do was be the fastest
in the world for one year," he said. "Now I think it's best if I
get out on top."
But it is difficult to know if Christie is truly beleaguered or
if he has chosen to recast himself as an underdog again, like
the one who came to Barcelona in 1992, building mountains in
front of himself so that he could be hailed for climbing them.
He slides most comfortably into the role of pursuer, which he
played while chasing Carl Lewis and the rest of the Americans
through the late '80s and into Barcelona in '92 and the worlds
in Stuttgart in '93. Yet even as he asks for empathy, Christie
offers up statements such as "You don't become world and Olympic
champion without being very, very strong."
In truth, he is sensitive and duly offended by his treatment.
Just as truthfully, the British media has lionized Christie for
his titles but vexed him with their own particular form of
journalism. Shortly after Christie's 1992 Olympic gold, one
London tabloid took notice of his revealing Lycra unitard and
asked, "What would you put in Linford's lunchbox?" It listed
various fruit and vegetable combinations--bananas, cucumbers,
oranges, etc.--as possibilities.
In Oslo, there was no pressure, briefly. No record was expected,
no victory was essential. "Nobody remembers if you win in Oslo,"
said Christie. Yet he ran with poise and control, slashing
though a slight head wind to win the 100 in 10.12. Dennis
Mitchell of the U.S. and Donovan Powell of Jamaica were out in
front of Christie, but age hasn't stunted his mid-race
overdrive, and he caught them at 50 and 80 meters, respectively,
and drew clear. "I started reaching for the tape too early, and
Linford was gone," said Powell, a 24-year-old.
The world championships await in Goteborg, Sweden, next month,
and there is little in Christie's form that suggests he will not
be ready. In Europe he has run a 10.03 and seems only slightly
nagged by a knee injury that slowed him down in the British
championships two weeks ago. "If I win this one, it will mean
more to me than all the others," Christie says. "Because this
one is against all the odds."
As Christie exited Bislett Stadium in the bright evening light,
he walked down a narrow wooden staircase, passing walls lined
with crooked pictures of distance runners--Sebastian Coe, Steve
Ovett, Ingrid Kristiansen. Here he was, a sprinter in their
temple, yet he never paused to look. His vision was elsewhere,
trained on closing his career with gold in Sweden.