Athletics: Backley spears golden record

European Athletics Championships: Party time keeps on going for Britain in the javelin and 4x400 metres relay
"GOING BIG early is the key," Steve Backley had said before these European championships. "That puts the pressure on the others." The Briton followed his plan here to the letter yesterday, winning his third consecutive title with an effort of 89.72 metres - pressure which none of his rivals could handle.

The man who came closest was Backley's friend and training partner Mick Hill - a sweet occurrence given that Backley displaced him from a medal position in taking a silver at last year's World Championships. Hill produced a fifth round effort of 86.92m, 2cm below his personal best, to take the silver, with Raymond Hecht, of Germany, third with 86.63.

Backley's winning distance beat his own championship record of 87.45m set in Friday's qualifying - on his first throw, naturally.

Aki Parvianinen, the 22-year-old Finn who had beaten Backley three times out of five this season and leads this year's world rankings with a throw of 90.88, failed to make the cut after the first three rounds.

It was a glorious double for the British throwers, who had prepared for these championships with the injured world champion, Jan Zelezny, who was watching from the stands.

Britain's women earned their second medal of the championships with a bronze in the 4x400m relay after an inspired third leg from Katharine Merry launched Allison Curbishley on to the final leg with a five metres advantage on the fourth-placed Romanian.

Merry, one of the group of athletes here coached by Christie, ran the individual 200 metres in these championships, but her split time of 50.4sec yesterday must have indicated to her the ultimate wisdom of moving up in distance.

Curbishley lengthened the gap to 15 metres by the finish to take third place in 3min 25.66sec after Germany's individual champion Grit Breuer had passed Olga Kotlyarova, of Russia, in the final 20 metres to win in 3.23.03.

For Sonia O'Sullivan, winning one event at a championship no longer seems to be enough. Yesterday she completed the only individual double of these championships, pulverising the 5,000 metres field by bursting into a leggy gallop around the final bend, just as she had in Wednesday's 10,000 metres final. Result: two golds to match the pair she won over both distances at the world cross-country championships in March.

The field contained another fearsomely fast kicker in the form of Romania's Gabriela Czabo, who has been sharpening up by running 1500m races on the grand prix circuit. There were even suggestions from some quarters that O'Sullivan had decided to do her first 10,000m here as an insurance in case she could not handle the Romanian's speed.

But that theory was demolished in the space of three seconds - the amount of time Czabo managed to hang onto the Irishwoman when she set off for home in a race which only started properly when the Romanian broke from the procession 50 metres before the bell.

O'Sullivan, who was running with a black ribbon on her vest to mark yesterday's memorial service for those killed in the Omagh bombing, finished in 15min 06.50sec .

Asked why she had run so well at championships, and so erratically on this season's grand prix circuit, she replied: "I've realised that it's all about coming to championships, winning, and carrying that flag round."

Czabo was distraught after a race in which she had played into O'Sullivan's hands by taking the lead early on at a relatively slow pace. The Irish woman was less than sympathetic. "She put herself there," she said. "If she didn't want to lead she shouldn't have done."

O'Sullivan's team colleague James McElroy, who was snatched up to run for Ireland while British and Northern Ireland officials dithered over offering the promising youngster a race, missed out on a medal by one place in the 800 metres, which produced one of the upsets of the championships as the world record holder Wilson Kipketer, of Denmark, jogged home a despondent last.

Kipketer, who has raced only three times since returning from a bout of malaria which put him in hospital for 11 days earlier this year, was jostled on the final bend by Nils Schumann, of Germany, who won in 1min 44.89sec.

Damian Kallabis, of Germany, produced a stirring victory in the 3,000m steeplechase, almost stumbling on the final water jump but recovering himself to vault clean over the last barrier, which finally broke the challenge of Italy's Alessandro Lambruschini, who won the title four years ago.

Manuela Machado extended Portugal's hegemony in the European women's marathon on Sunday with an untroubled win in a championship record of 2hr 27 min 10 sec.

As the sun began to shine and the temperatures rose, Machado increased the tempo, drawing away from Biktagirova at 34km and steadily extending her lead over the cobbled streets of the Hungarian capital. She entered the Nepstadion to applause from the scattering of spectators, 300 metres ahead of Biktagirova who took the silver medal in 2:28:01. Italian Maura Viceconte was third in 2:28:31.

As expected, Britain's men won the 4 x 400 metres relay when they held off a strong Polish challenge to win in 2min 58.68sec. It was the fourth consecutive European champion ship victory by a British quartet.

Report, results, page 18