Linford Christie: Britain’s fastest ever sprinter on race, patriotism and persistence

·12 min read


Linford Christie’s Olympic training unwittingly began many years before he began to take over the world, 100 metres at a time. As a child, he spent seven formative years in Jamaica’s most populous parish, St Andrew, where his grandmother, Anita, would send him off to the shops with a cunning technique to ensure that he came back promptly. “She’d spit on the floor and say: ‘Don’t let it dry before you come back,’” laughs Christie over Zoom. “She was most probably my first coach.” Christie has no recollection of ever getting in trouble upon his return, an indication that even in those days he ran like the wind.

What he does remember is the warmth of life in Jamaica. The family home seemed to be vast, filled with sisters, his brother, cousins and aunties. The community was so tight that if he got up to any mischief, family friends would not hesitate to keep him in check. In Jamaica, his grandmother was in charge. “Growing up, she was everything,” he says. “She was the mother, the doctor, the dentist; you name it, my grandma covered it.”

Christie’s parents moved to London when he was only two. His mother, Mabel, a seamstress by trade, became a nurse. His father, James, worked various jobs. Aged seven, Christie finally joined them in their west London home near Queens Park Rangers FC’s Loftus Road, where he would watch games through his back window or climb on to the roofs of flats nearby for a better view.

As winter first fell, the cold would sometimes bring him to tears. But far more chilling was learning the N-word for the first time as it was viciously hurled at him. He constantly changed routes to school to avoid the white children who would shower him with stones. “One time, I was playing a game and the little girl said: ‘My mummy said I shouldn’t play with the blackies,’” he recalls. “Even though I was young, I can still remember like it was yesterday. For me, it was one of my first shocks, thinking: ‘God, I’m black.’ Rather than I’m just any person. I’m a black person.”

In those early days, there was only one possible way to deal with racism: “You learn to fight.” In adulthood, he thinks more about what his parents endured: “I thought it was hard for me, it must be even harder for them. You come to a strange place, leave your family and everything else. You were asked to come, to help the country, then they treat you with nothing but hostility.”

Growing up, Christie wanted to be George Best and it was during a football game that a teacher, Mr Wright, suggested that he take up athletics. Christie spent his late teens playing dominoes in cafes, settling discussions among friends with races around the block and occasionally trekking to parties in Wandsworth, south London, in search of girls to dance with: “The music was called lovers [rock], so that’s what we did. We loved.”

Linford Christie
Linford Christie with his coach Ron Roddan in Sheffield, circa 1990. Photograph: Dan Smith/Getty Images

There was also some sprinting. Christie met his future coach, Ron Roddan, aged 19 at the Thames Valley Harriers, and in time showed that he could beat good sprinters, but never consistently. He still did not see athletics as a career: “I came up with a Jamaican passport and I didn’t renew my passport because I never thought I was going to leave the country again. That was the way we were taught. As black parents, my parents wanted me to get a good education, get a job, earn some money to help the family.”

Those around Christie thought differently. At 24, Christie received a letter from Roddan explaining that he was wasting his talent by not fully committing to sport. Christie turned to his grandmother and parents who suggested that he did not want to live with the phrase “if only” reverberating in his mind.

After that, he committed to sprinting. “I stopped going to parties. No more pink ladies or rum and blackcurrants,” he says. “And I trained. Within the six months, I could actually see the progress; it was going really, really well. And then I started getting noticed, started making teams. The closer you get, the more you win, the more you enjoy it.”

What he did not enjoy was the constant attention from police around that time. The nice cars he drove became a frequent target. “Police would stop you all the time: ‘Your car looks stolen.’ I had a sponsor car with my name down the side and they still pulled me over. I said: ‘My name is on the side of the car!’ They’d say: ‘We don’t know if it’s you.’”

Only last year, it seemed very little had changed when the same treatment was apparently meted out to two of the athletes Christie trains. In July 2020, the Olympian Bianca Williams and her partner, Ricardo dos Santos, were stopped by police and handcuffed while their three-month-old son sat in the car. Christie posted the video on Twitter and it soon went viral, triggering an investigation.

“I believe they got caught and they did not realise the high profile of the people,” says Christie. “We’ve been going through this for a long [time]. It’s not the first. But now it’s been televised, people can see. The public are becoming a little more cosmopolitan; we are amalgamating more, there are so many more mixed relationships and they’re beginning to understand.”

A lot of people think you have to run times. It’s not about times, you’ve just gotta be in front of everybody

Linford Christie

In 1986, Christie went to the European Championships in Stuttgart – which were transformative for him. He won a surprise gold medal over 100 metres at a time when his funds came from signing on and borrowed money from family friends. After his win, someone in the crowd gave him a union jack flag and he wrapped it round his shoulders. This display of patriotism would eventually become a normal sight in athletics but at the time it was controversial; he has said he was reprimanded by his team manager, while the broadcaster and campaigner Darcus Howe said it “made many black people I knew squirm”.

Christie supplemented his European Championships title with a silver at the Commonwealth Games, behind Ben Johnson, and then bronze at the 1987 World Championships. His style, from the unblinking tunnel-vision stare to the way his rugged starts exploded into sheer pace, became a highlight of athletics coverage at the time.

At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Christie finished third with a European record of 9.97 seconds, swiftly upgraded to silver after Johnson’s positive drugs test. He never imagined he would ever run so fast, but also realised that he did not know his own limits. “I just ran, I just ran with what I had. That was the main thing, just run with what you got. The race is not for the swift nor the strong, but for the endurance until the end.”

In the midst of celebrating all this, the news broke that Christie had tested positive for pseudoephedrine. In a frantic scene, he protested his innocence to a closed panel, arguing that he had been drinking ginseng tea, unaware of what it contained. The committee ruled 11-10 in his favour, allowing him to retain his medal and continue competing.

“It got to the stage where even though you know you’re innocent, you start to think: ‘Maybe I did it,’” he says. “That was the hard part. You don’t know what is going on. It could have completely turned it the other way … If you’re mentally weak, it could be soul-destroying.”

His soul, as it turns out, remained sturdy. In 1990, Christie successfully defended his European 100m title in Split and won two golds at the Commonwealth Games. In 1991’s Tokyo World Championships, he finished in 9.92 seconds, another time he never thought he would reach, although it put him fourth behind Carl Lewis, Leroy Burrell and Dennis Mitchell. Christie immediately questioned whether he had reached his peak. “I was 31 at the time and every time I raced, [I heard]: ‘You’re too old, too old.’ You start to wonder sometimes: ‘Maybe I am, let’s call it quits.’ He was reeled back in, he says, by the letters from fans he would meet on the street.

During pre-season training in Australia, Roddan worked ceaselessly on Christie’s starts and his vision of the sport became clearer. He resolved to please only himself and became more conscious of the fact that winning the race, not the time, counts: “A lot of people will go in the races and they’ll think you have to run times. It’s not about times, you’ve just gotta be in front of everybody. That’s the secret.”

One or two rounds into the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Christie says he knew he was going to win and he tore through in 9.96 seconds to become the oldest Olympic 100m champion, aged 32. A year later, he did the same, running as freely as he could to produce what is still the British record and second-fastest European time over 100m – 9.87 seconds. He became World, Olympic, European and Commonwealth champion at once, with the BBC Sports Personality of the Year and an OBE to follow. “Making friends, getting accolades, I suppose that’s why we do it,” he says. “We do it to be recognised.”

After a while, I said: If you think I did it, it’s your business. I can walk with my head high. I don’t care

Linford Christie

However, even at the height of his success, Christie’s relationship with the press was toxic: a battle most fiercely fought during the “lunchbox” row when the red-tops wrote stories about the size of his manhood. Christie was disgusted, pointing out the racist stereotypes. Throughout his career he was frequently viewed as arrogant, brash and uncooperative.

“Sometimes these guys would write stuff about me, but they never met me,” he says. “Some of them would come with preconceived ideas. And then they’d say after a while: ‘Ah, you’re nice, we didn’t know.’ The story they wrote would be something completely different. I’d ring them up and say: ‘Why did you lie?’ It was not journalistic licence, it was lies. And they didn’t like it.”

His career ended in anticlimax. After considering retirement, he decided to try for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, pushing himself through gruelling trials and valiantly battling all the way to the final. Now aged 36, he lined up with the best one last time – and false-started twice.

But the despair paled in comparison with what was to follow. Christie had all but finished with top-level sprinting in 1999 when he went to a meet in Dortmund, Germany. The organisers had invited him in an ambassadorial role, but he had bets to settle with some of the athletes he coached and took a lane. After the anti-doping test, he tested positive for nandrolone.

“I suppose, during my career you piss people off and they decide it’s the best way of getting revenge,” says Christie. “Even till this day, for me it was strange. Every time they do the story, they never write the story how it goes.” Christie says there was a delay in refrigerating the sample, and that it was then not sent to the lab for three or four days. “Regardless of whatever happened, that’s the chain of custody already gone.”

As the tribunal process continued, Christie grew tired of the time and money he was spending on a career that was already all but over (six months before the positive test he had won a libel case against the journalist John McVicar). “After a while, I said: ‘If you think I did it, it’s your business. I can walk with my head high. I don’t care.’” The tribunal proceedings came to a messy end: an investigation by UK Athletics cleared Christie, but was contested by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which banned him for two years. Years later, Britain’s greatest sprinter was denied the chance to play a significant role in the London 2012 Olympics.

Today, removed from both his career highs and lows, Christie sounds content. He is speaking from a training camp in Portugal and, now 61, spends many of his days coaching. The bond he has built with his charges and his responsibility for them has given him more patience and humility than when he stood on top of the world.

“I suppose the only thing I couldn’t beat was death. I beat everybody else,” he says. “I enjoyed what I did. I loved the fact that when I first started going to events the American anthem was the only anthem you’d hear. The Brits, we had to sit down in our corner and hold our space.

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“Alan Wells was there first and he showed them that Americans can be beaten and then I came along and it gave me the confidence that, yeah, they can be beaten. It’s possible.”

Christie’s patriotism has never been in doubt, even to his critics. But it is hard not to wonder about how easy it has been to love a country that, since he arrived at seven years old, has not always loved him back.

“My parents were Christians and it’s all about love, isn’t it?” he says. “Sometimes the picture is bigger than me. It’s not about me reacting because I’ve got to think about the people who come after me. A lot of us, black people in the country, we will support a team that will beat England. I think it’s wrong: we gotta be British for ourselves. We’re not going anywhere; this is where we are. So we have to start stamping our authority on this country and be British.”