Athletics / European Championships: Backley wins Finland's blue riband: Zelezny and Raty beaten to javelin gold by Britain's defending champion. Mike Rowbottom reports from Helsinki

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The Independent Online
THE Finns were denied their fervent wish for a Finnish European javelin champion here yesterday. Instead they had to settle for the next best thing as Britain's Steve Backley - who has assumed status of honorary Finn in public esteem since he started going out with a girl from Oulu - became the first man to retain this title.

Four years after winning in Split, one second-round throw of 85.20 metres proved enough to give him gold again, ahead of Finland's former world champion, Seppo Raty, second with 82.90, and the current world and Olympic champion, Jan Zelezny, who could only manage 82.58.

Last time round, in Backley's own words, the general thinking was that if he did the normal stuff he would win it. He was 21, the world record holder, and on a roll. He did the normal stuff.

In the intervening years, the javelin throwers' nemesis of injury - which, it seemed for a heady year or two, he might avoid - has descended on him. He won bronze at the 1992 Olympics with elbow strapped up and suffering from a torn adductor muscle. At the end of that year he had a shoulder operation from which he recovered in time to compete in last year's World Championships. There he injured a groin and finished fourth.

1994 also has been fraught with misfortune. A cut foot in March. A foot ligament injury in June. An adductor strain. He went into this competition with understandable caution, talking in terms of consolidation and a possible medal. He surpassed himself.

'It was difficult javelin throwing conditions,' he said. 'We were not going to see a world record tonight. All the guys were here so I'm just delighted. I was keyed up, probably more than I ever have been.

'There are 42,000 people here, and I don't think they were here to watch the 100m.'

The roar which greeted Raty was predictably huge. Zelezny had announced that he was competing suffering from 'aggravated tendons' in his elbow. His welcome was relatively muted. But Backley, whose girlfriend is the former Finnish sprinter, Tula Kangas, upped the decibels.

The weight of expectation on Raty, who won the 1987 world title and twice broke the world record in 1991, was heavier still following the failure of his two fellow countrymen, Juha Laukkonen and Harri Hakkarainen, to qualify for last night's final.

History too bore down upon the portly 32-year-old. Finland, a nation of five million people, had produced seven Olympic winners and three world champions. For all that, no Finn had earned a javelin medal at these particular Championships since Hannu Siitonen won in Rome in 1974. At least Raty was able to change that.

The tension in the final round was palpable. Backley, in his tracksuit, paced up and down, half glancing back at those throwing before him. Raty lumbered back and forth too, before minutely adjusting his run-up marker.

One by one the threats to Backley's lead fell away. His training partner, Mick Hill, unable to build on his consistent start of three throws over 80 metres, fell well short with his final attempt.

Hecht, McHugh and Sasimovich came and went without altering the standings. Then came the world and Olympic champion, Zelezny. The spear fell short of the 80m line. He stepped over anyway. Backley took off his tracksuit impassively.

The spear fell short of the 80m line too. Two more to throw - Patrick Boden and Raty. Backley, standing chatting with Hill, pursed his lips in relief as Boden fell short again. Raty now, for the last time.

The rhythmic clapping, the flags, the memory perhaps of how another Finn, Tiina Lillak, denied another British javelin thrower gold with her final throw at the World Championships here. His face suffused beneath his fair hair, Raty released the spear on an arc which ended well within the yellow line denoting 85 metres. Backley was back.

He smiled, and shook the hand of his training partner, Terry McHugh. And then behind him was the delighted figure of his coach, John Trower, the man who has fashioned his technique and worked on his morale since he was a novice. Now it all sank in for Backley as he danced out into the infield, arms raised . Afterwards, Raty complained that the arm upon which he had recent surgery was hurting so much he couldn't hold his javelin.

As Backley stood on the rostrum, he examined his medal on both sides as if in disbelief, then puffed out his cheeks and looked up. Some consolidation.

(Photograph omitted)

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