Athletics: Backley back in hope: Mike Rowbottom charts the return to fitness of the javelin thrower aiming to reach the top again

HOPEFUL sounds a reasonable enough word to use in connection with the forthcoming season. But Steve Backley is not comfortable with it. 'That is the way I would have described myself last year,' he said. 'This year I am fit. This year I am confident.'

Mentally as well as physically, Backley is working out. After four years of adversity, he is seeking to regain the position he once held as the world's best javelin thrower. So far, touch wood, fingers crossed, it is going well for him. Three meetings in South Africa during the spring, in company with his training partner Mick Hill, who was ranked second in the world last year, produced three wins. His performance at a meeting in Crete this evening will give him a further indication of what he has to do to defend his European Championship and Commonwealth Games titles this summer.

When Backley won those two gold medals four years ago, the picture seemed so much clearer. Hill was the man whose talent had been scarred by knee injuries, the man who was struggling to adapt his style. Backley, coached since he was 17 by John Trower, had a smooth technique which diminished the likelihood of incurring injury. He rarely threw anything below 85 metres. For a while, indeed, Backley was the man who could not lose.

It was, of course, too good to last. Non-qualification for the finals of the 1991 World Championships came as a jolting discord to the young man who liked to talk about hearing the music of the event. 1992 began wonderfully for him, with a world record of 91.46m in January, but by the time the Olympics came round Jan Zelezny of Czecholsovakia had thrown more than three metres further - admittedly with a questionable new design of javelin - and Backley, chasing too hard, had picked up a shoulder problem. Which led to an elbow problem.

His achievement in earning the bronze medal - who can forget that wince of pain as he released his final throw? - was remarkable. But there was no disguising his disappointment.

Backley's career, which had soared so smoothly, was veering away from its intended path. In December, 1992, he had a shoulder operation. Two months later, while building a pull-up bar in his garden to assist in his recovery, he jumped enthusiastically into a hole he and his father had dug out in order to start laying some hard core. He landed awkwardly, badly spraining his ankle.

His shoulder, with the help of a cortisone injection, eventually came good. But after a comeback at Crystal Palace at which he threw over 85 metres, his ankle swelled up again before his next meeting at Gateshead. He taped it up - too tightly. As a result, he pulled his adductor tendon while warming up. And so it was that he went to the World Championships in Stuttgart with a shoulder that was fine and a dodgy adductor. Zelezny won the title with a relatively meagre 85m. But Backley was unable to do better than fourth place with 81.

The frustration lingers in Backley's mind. 'My immediate thought was: you've failed. When I was fully fit I would not exactly step over the line on an 85 metres throw, but I was throwing them comfortably. The thing that got me was that Jan looked as beatable as I have ever seen him. He looked scared, and tight. But nobody was able to put him under pressure.'

This year it could be different. And although the Finns, who host this year's European Championships, are talking in terms of challenging for all three medals, Backley and Hill could be the ones to disrupt their challenge.

'For the first time,' Backley says, 'we are both fit and healthy at the same time.'

Both, now, have experienced the downside of an event which puts notorious stress on the body. Trower, a former international thrower himself, knows all about it. He put so much into breaking the English Schools record in 1972 that he could not clean his teeth properly with his right hand for the next two years.

Backley is by nature a positive person. For example, he has converted his frustration in Stuttgart to positive use - Zelezny's nervousness has made him reflect that no matter how far someone has thrown, they are always beatable.

Having three competitions back to back in South Africa was something Backley had not experienced for two years previously. 'It was wonderful. I enjoyed it like I couldn't say.' Cause for hope. Sorry. Cause for confidence.

(Photograph omitted)

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