Athletics: Backley aims at unique treble

European Athletics Championships: Britain's hope generously helped by World and Olympic champion

AS STEVE BACKLEY seeks to win a third successive European javelin title in Budapest this week, his mind may stray back to the circumstances of his last victory in this event, at Helsinki.

Defeating a field which contained every top thrower - including Jan Zelezny, the Olympic champion, and Finland's local hero Seppo Raty - prompted Backley to develop a spontaneous new technique.

It did not involve throwing, but celebrating. After Raty's last throw of the competition fell short of Backley's effort the Briton's first reaction was relatively sedate.

He smiled, blew out his cheeks and shook the hand of his training partner, Terry McHugh. But the manic appearance on the boundary wall of John Trower, the man who had coached, cajoled and occasionally conned Backley into a succession of champion performances suddenly seemed to define the moment for him.

Javelin throwers are not usually able or accustomed to doing laps of honour - too much else is usually occurring around them. But Backley, his enthusiasm overflowing, started to progress down the infield, side- stepping and waving in a movement that was half-way between jubilation and aerobics. It was ungainly. And glorious.

Perhaps Backley will devise a new victory salute in the Nep stadium on Sunday. Certainly his form this year makes it highly likely that he might need to.

Backley has already recorded 89.89 metres this summer, his best for six years and a distance which takes him to Friday's qualifying round as the European with the second furthest throw so far this season.

The only man who stands above him in the rankings is Aki Parviainen, a 23-year-old Finn who has thrown 90.88.

Backley, who will be 30 next February, could be forgiven a certain nervousness about this relatively newcomer given his experience at last year's world championships in Athens.

Approaching that event unencumbered by injury - a relatively rare state of affairs for him in the last six years - the Olympic and world silver medallist appeared to have within his reach the first global title he so desperately craved.

Then Marius Corbett, a 21-year-old South African, intervened with an unexpected African record of 88.40 which forced Backley to accept second place again.

Parviainen clearly has the potential to do the same this time, although his championship record at senior level has been as yet unremarkable.

Backley, however, will also be keeping a wary eye on Germany's Boris Henry, only half a metre behind him this year, and Konstantinos Gatsioudis, of Greece, whom the Briton identified as a potential danger before last year's championships in Athens. On that occasion, however, Backley backed the wrong dark horse.

But he has more reason to be confident this year given the consistency of his form. Part of the reason for his current buoyancy lies in the groundwork he has laid during the winter in tandem with the man who has been the event's predominant figure in recent years - Zelezny.

Earlier this year, the Czech athlete, now 32, injured his right shoulder so badly that fears were expressed over his career, and he was forced to rule himself out of competition for at least 12 months. However, the former army colonel and his coach, Jan Pospisil, have left open their invitation for Backley and Trower to visit their training group near Prague, an offer which has been readily taken up.

This week both men have been out to Prague again, accompanied by fellow countryman Mark Roberson and Mick Hill, as part of their final preparations.

This is just the latest manifestation of the approach Backley has been obliged to develop over the years as he has picked up the injuries which are the lot of every exponent in this wrenchingly demanding event, namely: adapt and survive.

Since 1992 he has had injuries to his shoulder, groin, elbow and feet. He has fought back with the help of a number of people, including the South African, Dr Ron Holder, who corrected a damaging imbalance in his posture by building up the insole of one of his shoes with minutely calculated layers of Yellow Pages. It sounded bizarre. It was bizzare. But it got Backley moving in the right direction again.

His ultimate defence, however, has been his own courage and mental toughness which he demonstrated to staggering effect when he won the Olympic silver medal two years ago just a month after he had been on crutches following an operation on a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Thus Backley goes into his third European Championships with the world and Olympic champion effectively in his corner. Success would set him up for a unique achievement, that of being both European and Commonwealth champion three times running.

Victory in Budapest this Sunday, and subsequent triumph in Kuala Lumpur next month - when Corbett is due to compete - would establish Backley's credentials as the world's leading thrower in the continued absence of Zelezny. It would be a highly acceptable way for him to move towards what he still regards as his ultimate goal - the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

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