The irony of being stuck halfway up a mountain in Austria while the biggest scandal in a generation hits athletics is not lost on Linford Christie, to date, Britain’s fastest — and most controversial – sprinter.
“Of course I have an opinion,” the gold medal-winning sprinter laughs, “but if they don’t want [to hear] it, then what can you do? I just move on and do something else.”
There’s a reason, of course, why Christie is limbering up for the new series of Channel 4’s reality series The Jump instead of taking on athletics’ corruption scandal: ever since testing positive for the steroid nandrolone in 1999, the Olympic champion has been frozen out of the sport that made him a household name.
Christie received a two-year ban from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), and is still something of a pariah figure in British athletics. At London 2012, his victory in the 100m final at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 was barely mentioned.
Why does this doping cold case still raise temperatures? Well, in 2001, just as Christie was emerging from his ban, he gave an interview in which he said that athletics was “so corrupt now I wouldn’t want my child doing it.” It wasn’t well received.
But 15 years on, his suspicions appear prophetic. “My thoughts on the IAAF all this time haven’t changed,” Christie says. “It’s there for the public to see now.”
The scandal began with senior IAAF officials accused of taking bribes to cover up positive doping tests. An investigation by an independent commission of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) recently confirmed that “corruption was embedded” at the IAAF, saying the governing council “could not have been unaware of the extent of doping”.
Lord Sebastian Coe, who became president of the IAAF in August after eight years as vice-president, is currently under pressure, although Wada investigator Dick Pound said that he “can’t think of anyone better than Lord Coe” to lead athletics out of the scandal.
Asked whether he thinks Coe is the right man for the job, Christie replies, “He has to look in the mirror and say, ‘Am I the right person to do this job?’ In any other job, would it be something you would tolerate, the way it’s going, and still leave the same person in the job? People do less and everyone’s calling for a resignation. We’ve got to be fair in these situations, haven’t we?”
Christie’s challenge to Coe’s leadership will come as no surprise to people who have followed the history of these two very different Olympic champions. In 2001 Coe responded to Christie’s corruptions claims by calling him “boorish”, adding, “I sat in one team meeting when he made himself deliberately unintelligible to all but those who had a passing knowledge of jive.”
Christie knows that much of what he says will be dismissed. “I suppose sometimes, even though I do have opinions on these things, maybe it might be better to get it from someone else rather than me. People will say,‘Oh yeah, we expect Linford to say these kinds of things.’”
There is another element at play, though, and it has nothing to do with personal enmity. The simple fact is, it’s hard to listen to an athlete preaching the virtues of honesty when he himself was found with 100 times the accepted level of a banned substance in his body.
At 32, Christie became the oldest Olympic 100m champion in history in 1992, and followed it up with the world and Commonwealth titles in 1993 and 1994. But his impressive record has been tarnished with two failed drugs tests: at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul he tested positive for the stimulant pseudoephedrine after a 200m heat, something he attributed to drinking ginseng tea. He was given an official “benefit of the doubt”.
After the second positive test, in Germany in 1999 when he was semi-retired, there was no benefit of the doubt. He was handed a two-year ban by the IAAF, and the British Olympic Association declared he would never be accredited for any future Olympics.
So, when it comes to doping scandals, why should we listen to Linford?
This riles Christie. Pointing out that while the IAAF found him guilty, UK Athletics had exonerated him, Christie launches into the same passionate defence of his record he has used since that drugs test in Germany.
“Anyone with an ounce of sense, if they sat back and looked at the situation, they would have asked, ‘What was the point?’ What was the point of me doing anything [corrupt] at the end of my career, especially when I told them when I retired that I was not doing any major competitions whatsoever?” he argues.
“They would say OK, I’d been doing it all my career – but if I’d been doing it all my career and, for argument’s sake, I’d got away with it, why would I then change and do something that would get me caught? It doesn’t make no sense.”
Christie insists time and again that the experience hasn’t made him bitter. Now 55, with six children, he still coaches British athletes, still goes to the track six days a week, still attends athletics events. He was the oldest man to win 100m gold; now he’s settling in to his role as the daddy of the track. “When I go to a championships, I go to the warm-up area,” he says. “I’m not with the officials, I’m with the athletes. This is the kind of person I am.”
When it comes to the winter sports challenges he faces on The Jump, he is, uncharacteristically, anxious. “I’ve never been skiing. I’m a black man, what am I doing on a ski slope? But my kids wanted me to have a go.”
So Christie heads to Austria, unsure of his skiing skills – but sure in his belief that he’s innocent. “I don’t bear any grudges; they did me wrong,” Christie says, wearily. “One day they will see it themselves and say, ‘Yeah, we did do Linford an injustice.’ Hopefully one day, with all this, all the crookedness that goes on in there, people will see, and they will have to come out and say, ‘We’re sorry.’”