Athletics: Backley back in the shadow of Zelezny

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The Independent Online
AS SATURDAY night became Sunday morning in Oslo, Steve Backley had the shell-shocked look of a man who had faced one too many serves from Goran Ivanisevic.

Jan Zelezny's world record throw of 94.74 metres, easily surpassing Backley's 91.46m at Auckland in January, was merely the last in a series of thunderous aces - 87.38, 90.10, 90.78 and 91.24 - a sequence of unprecedented quality.

The same thing had happened to Backley at the Bislett meeting two years earlier when the Czech soldier threw 89.66m to better the 89.58 which the Briton had achieved 12 days before. As on that occasion, Zelezny's throw on Saturday night was achieved with a new model of javelin designed by his consultant, Miklos Nemeth.

In 1990, Zelezny was pioneering a rough-tailed implement which was subsequently declared ineligible, although not before Backley had got hold of it on a whim midway through competition at Crystal Palace later that month and regained his record with 90.98m.

On Saturday Zelezny was throwing a Nemeth 2000 / 90, which conformed to the current regulations requiring smooth javelins, although Nemeth claimed, unsurprisingly, that it had a little bit extra. 'It's a slightly different shape which gives it more accuracy and it is a different composition of metals.'

Backley had the option to try one of the new models himself, having had one sent to him by Nemeth. But after giving the spear a practice throw, he decided to leave it in his garage.

After his defeat he was clearly intrigued by the prospect of repeating his Crystal Palace trick of two years ago until someone told him the new model would not be available at the Olympics as it had not been in use for the statutory one and a half years which ensures eligibility for major championships.

It was all, as Backley remarked, uncannily like 1990 when the javelin Zelezny threw was similarly ineligible for use in the major event of that season, the European Championships in Split. What, though, was Zelezny doing throwing a javelin he could not use in the Games in what he said would be his last competition before Barcelona? Nemeth said there was no difference required in the technique of throwing it, although the speed of Zelezny's delivery, which lies at the root of a back problem which severely restricts his competitive outings, is unmatched by his rivals.

History has repeated itself; but it has also taught Backley something from which he drew comfort in Oslo. Despite being world record- holder three times, Zelezny has done comparatively badly in major championships, where he has never won. Since finishing second in the Seoul Olympics, he has failed to qualify for the finals of the European and world championships. For all his speed, Zelezny, who has an unwanted legacy of two broken vertebrae, is a fragile thrower who is only able to compete after having pain-killing injections.

That gives Backley the basis to hope that his game plan for Barcelona remains valid. 'I still think 90 metres is enough to win the Olympics and I'm on course for that.'

Backley's defeat formed part of a general depression which settled over Britain's Olympic prospects in Scandinavia. Following Roger Black's demoralising defeat by Quincy Watts in Stockholm, there was further disappointment in Oslo as Liz McColgan, despite winning her 5,000m, produced a performance far short of that of her 10,000m rival, Elana Meyer, at the same distance two days earlier.

'I'm disappointed with the time. I thought I would run better than that,' McColgan said. 'I was looking to run a British record.' The word was that she had half an eye on Ingrid Kristiansen's world record of 14min 37.33sec. As it was she managed only 15:01.86, which was not even inside her personal best. It was not what she hoped for or expected so close to the Games.

Afterwards she reflected that some adjustments were necessary to her routine. 'It's getting through to me, slowly, that I have to ease down a bit more if I'm going to run what I am capable of doing. I'm not overdoing training, I'm just not having enough recovery days.'

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