• Rewind to 1992

If you're fast enough, you're young enough

ESPN staff
March 22, 2012
Linford Christie, the only European in the race, was roared on by the Spanish crowd as he took victory © Getty Images

The flagship event at London 2012 is almost certain to be the 100 metres, with those lucky enough to get tickets for the Olympic Stadium that evening hoping Usain Bolt can go even faster than he managed four years ago in Beijing (or three years ago in Berlin).

Barring exceptional circumstances - Cathy Freeman's 400m at Sydney 2000, for example - the men's sprint has consistently been the flagship event of modern Olympic Games, always seeming to draw with it some combination of excitement, controversy and breathtaking achievement.

Only three British athletes have ever managed to win that blue-riband event, however - as we rewind to one of those landmark occasions, when the oldest of the bunch crossed the line first...

Thirty-two and heading into only the second Olympic Games of his career, the odds of a gold medal in the 100m in 1992 did not look good for Linford Christie.

Yes, the biggest rivals of his era (Carl Lewis, Ben Johnson) had either retired or been disgraced, but Christie's time was perceived to have gone along with those two famous (or infamous) sprinters - after all, surely there was a reason no previous Olympic men's 100m winner had been as old as the Jamaican-born man was by the time he touched down in Barcelona.

A divisive figure among some sections of the public both at home and abroad, Christie was eager to prove his age did not automatically mean he had passed his peak - after all, he only began making headway in the sport as a professional during his mid-20s. That alone led to suspicion from some quarters, however, especially after he avoided a ban for a failed drugs test in 1988 by the narrowest of margins (a vote went 11-10 in his favour after he tried to blame ginseng tea for the result, although reports suggested two officials were asleep during voting).

That had all been put to bed in Barcelona, however, and the lack of an obvious victor in the flagship race had Christie confident about his chances (after Johnson's disqualification in 1988, the Brit had taken silver behind Lewis). He made the final without any scares (without the benefit of drugs, Johnson was ousted in the semi-finals), where Leroy Burrell, Dennis Mitchell (the two obligatory strong American competitors) and Frankie Fredericks (a 25-year-old Namibian, who had raised eyebrows by defeating Michael Johnson over 200m earlier in the year) were expected to provide his stiffest opposition.

Burrell was pegged as the likeliest winner - after Christie had crossed the line first in their quarter-final together, the American had bounced back with a real warning shot in his semi-final triumph. Indeed, after Lewis's retirement, it was Burrell who he anointed as his chosen successor - a faith that did not look to be misplaced as he became, somewhat by default, the fastest man in the field thanks to a personal best of 9.88 seconds.

It was a measure of the closeness of the competition, however, that even unheralded Nigerian Olapade Adeniken - one of two out in lanes seven and eight - had a newly-acquired personal best of 9.97. Amid that small range of potential times, Christie's age was perceived as a huge factor against his chances of finally claiming that elusive gold.

What he did have, however, was the support of the crowd on his side - Christie may have struggled for the adulation he felt was his due in his own country (although, having only joined his parents in London from Jamaica when he was seven, some were keen to pour scorn on his 'Britishness') for a myriad of reasons but, as the only European in an African and North American-dominated field, he received by far the warmest reception from the Spanish hordes.

Flanked as he was in lane five by Mitchell (four) and Burrell (seven), the added noise as the athletes were presented to the stadium was noticeable - even if his expression remained characteristically blank throughout.

Despite that attempt to keep a level head, Christie made arguably the worst start of the field (Canada's Bruny Surin, in lane one, positively flew out of the blocks - perhaps helped by the proximity of the gun). But he quickly made up ground as all the athletes moved into the transition phase - with Christie's jutting, wide-legged strides getting him upright and into his full running motion before anyone else.

Arguably that was the key to the race. With his arms slicing through the air and his powerful legs now churning over directly beneath him, Christie quickly overhauled Mitchell to his left as Burrell - experiencing the sort of big-race stage fright that Asafa Powell would later specialise in - failed to keep up to his right.

With half the race now run, Surin still held a narrow lead in lane one, with the whippet-like Fredericks hot on his heels. Christie, however, was not about to be denied as he was in 1988. Looking back on the replay with the knowledge of what is about to transpire makes it hard to remain objective, but it does seem Christie pulls clear of his two rivals through sheer force of will - propelling himself towards the line using more than the muscles of his body.

In the closing stages he powered his way past the tightening duo in front of him, as Mitchell rode his coattails to edge past Surin in the final metres. By then, however, Christie had opened up a clear advantage over all his rivals, and as he crossed the line - in a time of 9.96 - his victory was obvious enough for him to immediately open his arms in exclamation.

As he rounded the bend he made straight for the stands to pick up a British flag, one he would proudly brandish as commentators continually mentioned what a surprise this all was considering his age (something that, considering the advances in sport in recent times, seems very surprising. Is 32 that old?).

Subsequent drugs controversies (a failed test in 1999 precipitated his retirement) cast further doubt on the true merit of Christie's achievements, continuing his status as a polarising figure among British athletics. Putting aside those questions, however, this was an impressive victory built primarily on determination and resolve - even if it ultimately only quelled the discussions surrounding him for a short period.

What happened next?
Christie went on to take further sprint golds in the World, Commonwealth and European Championships - completing a set (no man had ever held all four in the 100m at the same time) that cemented his place as one of most successful sprinters ever. His career since the last of those medals (in 1994) was less successful: he was disqualified from the final of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 after two false starts before a ban for failing a drugs test in 1999 hastened what had rather evidently already become a slide into retirement.

That retirement has followed with it numerous run-ins with both the authorities and former contemporaries. A regular mentor to some of the premier names in British athletics these days - two charges of his, Darren Campbell and Katherine Merry, went on to great success - his involvement with London 2012 nevertheless remains somewhat fraught, considering his drugs ban and ongoing ill-feeling between him and Sebastian Coe - leading another 1992 British hero, Derek Redmond, to famously note that his former team-mate is "a well-balanced athlete; he has a chip on both shoulders".

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