For Christie, the oldest shall be the fastest Mitchell wins bronze in 100 as Burrell fades to poor fifth BARCELONA 92

August 02, 1992|By Mike Littwin | Mike Littwin,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- This was never supposed to be Linford Christie's Olympics. Christie was from another era. He was from the chase-Carl Lewis era. And now he's the 100-meter champion.

It doesn't figure.

In the year when the old guard was expected to finally give way, Christie, the oldest sprinter working at age 32, ran the 100 in 9.96 seconds yesterday at the Estadi Olympic to win the gold in fairly undramatic fashion.

This was supposed to be a breakthrough Olympics for the young Americans or maybe the even younger Africans. Lewis, the two-time defending champion, didn't make it out of the U.S. trials. Ben Johnson showed up, but he didn't show well. He was eliminated in the semifinals when he nearly fell coming out of the blocks.

That left Christie, who had chased Johnson and Lewis in their memorable race in Seoul.

"I figured if I didn't win, it would be Linford," said Dennis Mitchell, 26, who finished third in 10.04, just behind Frank Fredericks, 24, of Namibia. "Since '87, he's always run strong in the important meets."

He runs well, and he loses. That's the history of the Jamaican-born Briton. Four years ago, he ran third in the Olympics with a 9.97, but was moved up to second after Johnson's disqualification.

A year ago at the World Games in Tokyo, he ran a spectacular 9.92 -- and finished fourth. He decided then he was ready to quit.

"But I got so many letters from people at home, saying it was just one year to the Olympics and I shouldn't quit yet," he said.

And so, he stayed, ran well all summer and won yesterday with a terrific surge at about the 70-meter mark when he blew away the field.

"I have the best second-half kick of anyone outside of Carl Lewis," he said.

Mitchell, winner of the U.S. trials and who was running in the lane alongside Linford, got to see the kick up close and personally.

"Linford surged first," he said. "He got a few steps ahead of me. I truly believe if I had surged first, it might have been a different story."

Maybe. But the story for the Americans was definitely not a good one. The Americans swept the 100 at the World Games and were expected, even without Lewis, to do nearly as well here. But Mark Weatherspoon injured his left ankle in the second semifinal and had to be carried off the stadium floor. With Weatherspoon out, Lewis is expected to replace him on the 4x100 meter relay team.

And Leroy Burrell, 25, once the world-record holder and once Lewis' heir apparent, finished a poor fifth in the final after winning his semifinal heat.

Burrell had beaten him 10 consecutive races and had arrogantly brushed aside a question the night before about Christie's chance to break the string. "Do you really expect me to answer that?" he said.

"Linford got out of the blocks like a rocket, and I didn't," Burrell XTC said. "I got out of the blocks like a slug, and I didn't get any faster."

Burrell had been called for a false start. A second false start causes disqualification, meaning Burrell, who's famous for his quickness at the start, had to hold back.

"I never moved," he said. "I didn't know who started too soon, but it couldn't have been me because I never even left the blocks. That made me change my whole game plan."

Game plans in the 100 may be problematic. Burrell just couldn't get going. Fredericks, who left South Africa to study at Brigham Young in 1987, ran a very steady race, edging Mitchell for the silver. Fredericks, the NCAA champion in the 100 and 200 last year, is the best of the Africans, who after years of dominating the distance events, are starting to challenge in the sprints. Three Africans made the final eight.

But, in the end, there was only Christie, who took what the British call a lap of honor with the Union Jack draped about his shoulders.

"The 100 meters is the story of the Olympics," said Evelyn Ashford, the veteran women's sprinter, after losing in her semifinal heat yesterday. "If you win the 100 meters, you're the star of the Olympics. You are the fastest man in track."

Few people expected that title to fall to Christie. Even Christie, who must have thought he'd never outlast Lewis to get this opportunity, said he wasn't altogether confident.

"My friends all believed in me more than I believed in myself," Christie said. "When I ran well here in the semifinals, I was about 90 percent in my mind that I could do it."

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