Athletics: Grant's gamble pays out silver

DALTON GRANT, one of the great gamblers in British athletics, nearly hit the jackpot here yesterday with an outstanding performance in the high jump that brought him a European Championship silver medal - something not won by a Briton since Alan Paterson in 1946.

The 32-year-old, who only secured his place in the British team after a last-minute attempt to jump a qualifying height, cleared 2.34 metres to take second place behind Poland's Artur Partyka, who achieved the same height but won on countback, having recorded no failures in reaching that level.

After seeing Partyka fail in his first attempt at 2.36, Grant, whose top-class career began when he was seventh in the 1986 Commonwealth Games, elected to try for the next height of 2.38. "I'd been jumping brilliantly in the preliminaries, but I knew I had to give it some welly," he said.

When Partkya subsequently failed in his last two efforts, Grant was left with three final attempts to earn gold. But despite the urging of the crowd, the task proved too much for him.

It was nevertheless a showing of huge nerve and courage from a competitor who was having to compete with pain-killing injections in his knee.

Grant had only made it to the Championships at the 11th hour. While the selectors were meeting on 8 August to decide their final squad, Grant was getting a flight out of Liverpool - where he had only managed to jump 2.10 metres - to compete in the following day's meeting at Leverkusen in Germany. There he managed 2.28 metres to confirm his place in Budapest.

"He had qualified technically on last year's performances and we gave him the exemption because he is a potential medal winner and has proved himself over the years," Max Jones, Britain's team chief, said.

That proof has taken the form of Commonwealth silver in 1990, the European indoor title in 1994 and two fourth places at the World Championships, the second of them last year when, knowing he was carrying an injury, he gambled on coming in late - at 2.32m - and cleared it, only to miss out narrowly on a medal.

The selectors, who have now been proved right, also knew of another reason why the 32-year-old had not been in consistent form - the arrival three weeks ago of another child, and the inevitable interrupted nights.

The only likely interruption to his sleep last night was celebration. With the bronze medallist at the last European Championships, Steve Smith, having to play a non-competing captain's part here following a neck injury, Grant had risen once again to the challenge for Britain in what was arguably his most impressive performance.

Steve Backley announced his intention of winning a third consecutive European javelin title in ideal fashion, qualifying for tomorrow's final with an opening throw of 87.45m - breaking his own championship record by 15 centimetres.

Asked what his tactics would be before coming to Budapest, Backley responded: "Going big early is the key. That puts the pressure on the others." Plan A is working well so far. Now the 29-year-old Sidcup athlete needs to repeat the performance against a field that still includes all his main rivals.

Aki Parviainen, the 23-year-old Finn who has beaten Backley three times out of five this season, progressed with 80.65 metres, but his fellow countryman, Juha Laukkanen, came closest to the Briton's effort with 83.71. Nevertheless, it is Parviainen who is more of a concern to Backley.

"Aki has thrown three personal bests already this season," Backley said. "He's young, and it's helpful that he has such a simple technique which won't break down under pressure. It makes him the danger man. Mind you, the Finns are always under tremendous pressure of expectation because this is more important to their supporters than any other sport."

Four years ago in Helsinki, Backley witnessed that pressure at first hand as Seppo Raty attempted to win the European title on home ground. Neither he, nor even the world and Olympic champion, Jan Zelezny, could beat Backley on that occasion as the Briton registered his most prestigious victory.

As he seeks to move closer to the championship record of four javelin titles held by the Czech Janis Lusis, whose son Voldemors failed to progress from yesterday's qualifying, Backley has Zelezny in his corner. The Briton trained in South Africa throughout the winter with the Olympic champion and his coach, Jan Pospisil. And although Zelezny disappeared from contention this year when he seriously injured his shoulder in training four months ago, the support has continued. Indeed, Zelezny has travelled here to watch the event.

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