RICHARD BULLICK: Athletics - Cloud Still Hanging over Christie

Article excerpt

EVERY job has its perks, and talking to living legends like Linford Christie in the name of work isn't the worst way to spend a Friday afternoon.

There are those who will remain unconvinced that there can be smoke without fire and will forever define the superstar sprinter by that test for banned substances which proved positive.

That sorry saga has cast a cloud over Christie's supremely successful career and, regardless of how things turned out thereafter, at a stroke tarnished the reputation of an awesome athlete.

To many others, his heroics on the track, crowned by that gold medal in the 100 metres at the 1992 Olympics, will live longer in the memory than the confusing claims and counterclaims surrounding his supposed guilt of wrongdoing.

Opinion has been deeply divided about Christie's case and others as athletics strives to rid itself of the cheating curse which has blighted the sport's name.

The current controversy in America, with suggestions that bans could be imposed on the basis of circumstantial evidence alone, could have a big bearing both on this year's Olympics and public perceptions of the integrity of track and field.

Currently coaching some of Britain's best sprinters, notably Darren Campbell, Christie clearly has an active interest in the present developments and agrees that the next few months should be significant in shaping the sport's future. "It's hard to know what will happen and, although everyone is watching with interest, all the athletes can do is focus on their own preparation programme and let this thing take its course.''

He agrees that making athletics as clean and credible as possible is desirable, but fears that innocent individuals could pay an awful price if there is a McCarthyite crusade to weed out the guilty.

"I've no idea if a few of the biggest names will be missing in Athens.

"You'd like to believe that the vast majority of athletes are clean but if any aren't then it is in the interests of the sport that they should be detected and banned.

"I firmly believe that the cheats are in a minority, but their presence does damage to athletics. At the same time, miscarriages of justice harm human beings by ruining reputations and careers so this is a very serious subject.

"As someone who has been a victim myself, I can't state strongly enough that the testing procedures and processes must be properly applied, transparent and worthy of our complete confidence. Up until now, that has not necessarily been the case.

"The main thing is your own conscience and being able to sleep in bed at night, but it isn't nice knowing that other people might think you're a cheat.''

In addition to the excitement of a star-struck sports fan, the writer also approached this interview with a degree of trepidation born out of some sense that Christie could be difficult to deal with and had had an at times tetchy relationship with the media.

Maybe he has mellowed, perhaps there is a degree of gratitude that the public has solidly stuck by him and in, any case, putting his best foot forward was what he was here for.

Christie was in Ballymena to preside over a trolley dash, pose for photos and generally act as an ambassador for Holmes Cash and Carry who were, presumably, paying big bucks for him to be there.

Any fears of an awkward interview were unfounded as Linford proved engaging and enthusiastic, accommodating and affable, friendly and forthcoming as we found a quiet corner to talk among shelves of foodstuffs and other goods.

''It's good to be here and the sun's shining'' he beams.

"I have happy memories of coming to Northern Ireland to compete in the old Dale Farm Games and always came regardless of the rain or the 'Troubles'. …