In the final 200-meter training sprint of the afternoon, Linford Christie cruises into the turn, last among four runners and very much the largest of them, making it appear that they are children and he is some wronged authority figure chasing them down. When they straighten for home, the leaders tighten and Christie swallows them whole, his knees lifting to his waist, his cadence never slowing. "Fooling around with us," says one of the beaten, 1992 Olympic 110-meter-hurdle gold medalist Mark McKoy. Christie steps off the track and walks alone across the soft grass infield, hands on hips, sharp spikes taking small divots.
This concludes an April day during which Christie, a 36-year-old Jamaican-born Briton, has heaped a crushing workout on himself and 10 other athletes training together in Gainesville, Fla. "We go until Linford passes out, and that never happens," says Jamaican sprinter Juliet Cuthbert, winner of two silver medals at the 1992 Games. Christie has lifted weights for more than two hours, crunched through 400 sit-ups, spent another 90 minutes on the track and reiterated that he is not preparing for the Olympics.
Never mind that Christie is the defending champion in the 100 meters. Or that he treasures little in life more than beating American sprinters and that to do so at the Atlanta Games, on U.S. soil, would be the sweetest victory of all. Forget that no man since Charles Hahn at the turn of the century has crossed the line first in consecutive Olympic 100s (Carl Lewis is in the record books as the gold medalist in 1984 and '88, but he received the latter only after Ben Johnson was required to forfeit the gold when he tested positive for steroids).
The Games, Christie says, are coincidental to his training. "Too much fuss is being made about me running in Atlanta," he says, lying on his side next to the track. "I might run. I might not." Choose your rationale for this coyness: Christie is tired of scrutiny by the relentless British tabloids; Christie, who can make a meet and therefore can command as much as $50,000 simply for showing up, is trying to drive up his appearance fee in this, his final season; Christie knows that he can no longer run. He turns on his broad back and laughs up at the sun, basking in the orchestrated mystery.
Another of Christie's great pleasures is watching others try to figure him out. How does an old man run so fast? Is he on the juice? Is he the nasty, glowering figure who comes to race, or the carefree spirit so loved by his friends? Now he floats the best question: Can the defending Olympic gold medalist, healthy and on the verge of writing history, walk away from the Games?
And here's perhaps the most intriguing paradox. Christie's upper body is a piece of athletic art: A 6'2", 210-pound package with the thick chest and shoulders of a linebacker cut to a bodybuilder's definition. It's a body that makes an audience fall silent when he stands behind his blocks. Yet his mind is his greatest weapon.
"In track and field we don't touch people with our hands or our bodies," says John Smith, who coaches sprinters Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Jon Drummond of the U.S., among others. "We have to touch people with our minds. They say an actor steals the light, makes you feel his presence. That's what Linford does on the track."
His rivals sense Christie's presence now, in the final weeks before the Games. This plan of his, to leave himself undeclared for the Olympics when it seems so obvious that he will run, hasn't deceived any of his opponents. He left Florida in early May and returned to his base in London, from where he has taken up a racing schedule that is fully Olympian. On May 12 he won the 100 at a minor meet in Germany; he won both the 100 and the 200 at the European Cup on June 1 and 2 in Madrid; he finished second, beaten by a stride in a 100 on June 5 in Rome; and last Friday in Nuremberg, he beat Donovan Bailey of Canada, who won the 100 at last summer's world championships. Although he's guaranteed a spot on the British Olympic team if he wants it, Christie will run the 100 in the British Olympic trials on June 14 to 16 in Birmingham. "Do you really think Linford would be out there training this hard to run a few Grand Prix meets?" asks Bailey. "He'll be in Atlanta, don't worry." Says U.S. sprinter Dennis Mitchell, the bronze medalist behind Christie four years ago, "I'm training for him to be there."
They must prepare for Christie, because he has been the dominant presence in sprinting since he won in Barcelona. That victory was followed by a world championship in the 100 in Stuttgart in 1993. Christie's rise has coincided with the decline of U.S. sprinting (no gold medals in the Olympics or world championships since '91). "He's taken on the Americans all by himself, and he loves to beat them," says Ron Roddan, Christie's coach of 16 years. There are other good sprinters, of course, but no one else has imposed his will on the sport as Christie has, ruling not just with speed but also with intimidation. "The man has a size on him that would intimidate anybody, and it does," says Smith.
Away from the track, friends know Christie as a jaunty, spirited man, full of energy and humor. Before one workout in Gainesville in April, he regaled British sprinters Darren Campbell and Adrian Patrick with long, preposterous stories of his Jamaican youth, of tying leashes on lizards and of putting oversized dragonflies on tethers and watching them fly in circles. "It was fun, man, you had to make your own toys," Christie said, laughing. "He cooks for us. How many men do that?" says veteran Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey.