Why did the BBC give Christie an easy ride?

STEVEN DOWNES found the latest edition of Inside Sport less than frank

There is a chance that the increasingly vacuous Inside Sport could become a bit of a hobby horse. Certainly, this week, by embracing another long-standing pet issue, I could ignore the programme no more.

On the sofa with Gabby Logan was Linford Christie, Britain’s Olympic gold medal-winning drugs cheat. Except that the word “cheat” was never used by Logan through the whole 30-minute programme.

From the first, she flattered Christie, calling him “an affable chap”, without a hint of irony, which drew a broad smile of approval from the millionaire sportsman once tagged “the world’s fastest granddad”.

If Logan really wanted to find out how affable Christie could be, then she should ask Andy Edwards, then a BBC World Service athletics reporter, about the aggressive abuse once hurled his way by the sprinter. It was not the only time Christie abused or threatened journalists during his competitive career. On this occasion, even Christie, not known for often admitting he is wrong, subsequently apologised.

There are numerous stories about Christie’s “affability”, both with his team mates or journalists. Such as when Christie, then aged 24, failed to make it even into the British relay squad for the Los Angeles Olympics, and had an angry altercation with the head coach, Frank Dick. When asked by Christie why he had not been picked, Dick replied, “Because you’re not fast enough.”

Yet within two years, a bigger, stronger Christie, encouraged by British athletics’ promotions officer Andy Norman, had transformed his physique in his mid-20s, and was running much faster to win the first of three European 100 metres titles.

It is a while since Linford rang me at home, to complain about a Sunday Times report in which I had drawn a comparison between the herbal remedies used, possibly as a smokescreen for other, more nefarious practices, by a group of Chinese women distance runners, and the excuses offered by Britain’s own athletics team captain of drinking oriental Ginseng herb tea when he’d given an adverse drugs test at his first Olympics in 1988.

In Seoul, with his hearing going on long into the early hours of the morning, Christie escaped all sanctions by the narrowest of margins simply because, according to his own defence lawyer, one of the disciplinary panel fell asleep and failed to vote. The IOC line since has been that Christie “was given the benefit of the doubt”.

During his phone call, as I listened to the torrent of abuse from Christie because I had dared to even mention in passing the issue of his Seoul drugs test, from elsewhere in our home came the sound of our infant son, crying. Christie, hearing the boy, issued a curse to the child because I had upset him. Nice. Affable.

In this week’s Inside Sport, Logan touched on teamwork, and elicited from Christie — the arch individualist from an individual sport – a string of platitudes in which he said that he would not coach anyone if they were not a team player. This interesting remark was not followed up.

There followed a two-minute promo of the career of Linford Christie, slickly put together as the BBC Sports department always does so well. “You were pretty good, weren’t you?” gushed Gabby, Paxman-like in her interrogation (not).

A decade ago, when the BBC had another sport features programme, and less sports rights than they enjoy today, Christie agreed to come into the studio to be interviewed by John Inverdale on Onside. There was no kid glove treatment then.

Remember, this was around the time that Christie was giving evidence in the High Court in London in a libel case brought against John McVicar, in which the sprinter said under oath that he never cheated. Christie won his libel case, but even then he could not convince all the members of the jury.

Then came his race at an indoor meeting in Germany in 1999. Drugs testers arrived with Christie not expecting them and the sample collected contained anabolic steroids (this, for your reference, Gabby, is what sports journalists call a positive test).

Christie has always maintained that he was “retired” from athletics by the time of that test, and so had no need to use banned drugs. This conveniently ignores the facts that Christie was paid an estimated $10,000 for his less-than-7sec performance, and that his clocking that day, even at the age of 39, was among the fastest 60-metre season-openers of his entire career. Some pensioner.

Ten years on from the second adverse drug test of Christie’s competitive career, how did Logan’s Inside Sport handle the issue?

Well, she complimented him on a new hair style. Fluff, fluff, flatter, flatter — maybe this was a technique to disarm Christie before she went for the jugular? After all, it was on a previous series of Inside Sport that Matthew Pinsent filmed his headline-grabbing interview with Dwain Chambers, in which our second most prominent disgraced sprinter was encouraged to be open about his drug taking, ultimately to his own detriment.

So, Logan’s killer question for Christie? “You know what it’s like to have a drugs allegation levelled against you…”.

“Allegations”? The man is a proven drugs cheat. He tested positive for 100 times normal levels of nandrolone in his system. He was banned for two years and has a life ban from Britain’s Olympic teams.

There’s more, which a modest bit of research would have revealed. Christie was officially reported or warned more than once for abusing or evading drug testers during his career. There was his adverse test for a banned stimulant as long ago as 1988. Yet he still bought a similar stimulant, packaged as Up Your Gas, and provided it to another member of the British track team when he was captain, which ultimately led to Solomon Wariso getting banned.

On Inside Sport, Christie’s response to his softball question was a curate’s egg. He was right to say that athletics gets a bad rap because it, like cycling in the last decade, has tested more thoroughly than most other sports.

But where was Logan’s supplementary to Christie when he claimed that, “It’s a small minority of people who will take drugs”?

Did she ask whether this assertion was based on Christie’s personal experience with his sometime training partners Lenny Paul (positive test for nandrolone, but the bobsleigh federation accepted his explanation that it was all down to a plate of spaghetti Bolognese) or Jason Livingston?

Or the infamous 1988 Seoul 100 metres final, in which Christie and another five of the eight runners have subsequently been tarnished by drugs revelations? Or did she run through the litany of recent Olympic and world champions — Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Justin Gatlin, Kelly White, Rashid Ramzi — who have been unmasked as drugs cheats?

Did Logan ask whether this was Christie’s “small minority”?

Errr, no.

So just what conditions did the BBC agree to in order to get Christie’s platitude-ridden opinions on to its programme? Was there no other leading athletics figure that the producers could have brought in?

At risk of sounding like the Daily Mail leader column, this had all the appearance of a public relations exercise, part of the rehabilitation of Linford Christie, and done at the licence fee-payers’ expense.

“It’s about time we concentrated on the positive side of things,” Christie said. Which in his case, is easy to do.

This week, Logan promises us, “all topics, all up for discussion. David Beckham, revealing all” on Inside Sport. Somehow, you doubt it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and in no way reflect the policy of the SJA

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