Athletics: Benevolent Backley must turn tables

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The Independent Online
IF JAN ZELEZNY once again denies Steve Backley a global title on the final day of the world championships the great British javelin thrower will only have himself to blame. Zelezny, the former Czech army colonel who halted Backley's march to victory at the 1995 world championships in Athens and at the Atlanta Olympics the following year, is back on the gold standard in Seville thanks in no small part to the generous help of his long-time rival.

When Zelezny's career was left hanging in the balance in May last year, and his throwing arm left hanging by threads after a freak accident in training, Backley and his coach, John Trower, spent countless hours trawling the Internet searching for specialist medical help. It was they who tracked down the American surgeon who pinned the Czech's broken collarbone back to his breastbone in a series of delicate operations after Zelezny almost ripped his right arm from his shoulder when his feet became entangled in an elasticated rope.

"I owe Steve and John a lot," Zelezny said after topping Backley's qualifying group with a 84.31m throw in the Estadio Olimpico on Friday evening. "They really helped my spirits through the dark days. They were always ringing me up, making sure I didn't get too down. Then, when I got back throwing again, they invited me to train with them in South Africa last winter."

The irony is that, while Zelezny, the 32-year-old world record holder and reigning Olympic champion, is back in shape to challenge for the world title he won in Stuttgart in 1993 and in Gothenburg two years later, Backley is struggling to keep his body together for a major challenge of his own in today's final. The 30-year-old has finished among the medals in four of the last five global championships - bronze at the 1992 Olympics, silver at the 1995 world championships, silver at the 1996 Olympics and silver at the 1997 world championships. But he looked anything but a serious contender as he scraped through to the final as the 11th-best qualifier, with 81.68m.

He also looked far from a picture of rude health, with his right knee heavily bandaged until it was packed in ice as soon as he left the arena. "It was as good a throw as I could manage," Backley said. "The knee is bothering me a bit. I'll be looking for one or two big throws on Sunday."

A throw like the one he landed close to the 90m mark after stepping marginally over the throwing line at the AAA Championships in Birmingham last month would probably be good enough to earn Backley, three times the European champion and twice the Commonwealth champion, his first global title. Having only won once in 11 competitions this season, though, his form, like his fitness, hardly has a golden glint to it.

Zelezny himself confessed to being "less than 100 per cent" on Friday. But he added: "It was always the case in the past, before the big accident last year. I have always had problems with injury. It's part of the job of a javelin thrower. It has been hard to get back this time. Certainly, a year ago I wouldn't have believed that I would be throwing in the world championships.

"I hope I can win, but it is a very open competition. There are several of us who are capable of winning. Steve may have had his problems but he is an excellent thrower in championship finals. His record speaks for itself. Whatever his form has been like, he always seems to rise to the big occasion.

"I think 90m will be enough. Maybe not even that. It is not like a grand prix meeting. Mentally the world championships is far tougher and mentally I feel very strong. I'm ready to surprise all of them with my first throw."

Backley has the same game plan, too. He will stake everything on an all- out first-round launch. If he succeeds, it will be the crowning glory of his 12-year career. "I've got European gold," he said, "Commonwealth gold, world championship silver, Olympic silver, Olympic bronze. World gold would top it all nicely, followed by Olympic gold maybe... We'll have to wait and see."

But with the in-form Greek Kostas Gatsoudis for Backley to contend with, as well as the rebuilt Zelezny, Britain should not be holding its breath in golden expectation today.