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 V�nuste 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 G�teborg, 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."