Athletics: Outlook gets bleaker for Backley: Ken Jones on a Briton's vain attempt to return to his best despite injury problems

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IN THE circumstances, a bleak experience could have been imagined for Steve Backley, whose fortunes in spear propulsion have taken a turn for the worse since he became the first Briton since Boadicea's time to achieve prominence in the event.

All the hopes that were held out for the 24-year-old from Sidcup began to dissolve in 1991 when, as the European title- holder and former world record- holder, he flopped at the World Championships in Tokyo, throwing so far below his best form that he failed to qualify for the final.

Since then he has been held back by a succession of injuries (he was not fully fit when taking the Olympic bronze medal in Barcelona last year), especially the sort of shoulder condition that has prematurely terminated the careers of baseball pitchers. Ironically, it was not this but an adducter problem, known commonly as a groin strain, that sent him into last night's competition with a permanent frown on his face. 'It feels as though I'm forcing my body to where it doesn't want to go,' he said, 'so I might have to gamble on one big throw.' As it was a desperate effort that got Backley to Stuttgart, when he achieved 85 metres at Crystal Palace three weeks ago after disconsolately withdrawing from a Grand Prix meeting at Gateshead, it was understandable that he should think that way, although in fact he settled for a less hazardous policy.

Doubtless there is plenty of information available on the effect that javelin throwing has on the human frame and even to myopic eyes it is obvious. Looking extremely hesitant when working through a sequence of warm-up throws, Backley quickly left the 'parking' facilities that the throwers shared happily at one end of the stadium. He wandered to a corner of the infield, pausing every now and again to release his shoulder, probably thinking how things used to be in a better time.

Before Backley's body began to protest, he could happily have thought himself a match for his friend, Jan Zelezny, the world record-holder and Olympic champion. Instead he was forced to try to nurse his way through a World Championship final with only one competition behind him this season.

It proved to be a forlorn effort. Retreating into the stadium tunnel, he emerged at a canter to send his javelin in a high parabola that took it 79.78 metres. It was not good enough, as his face showed on sight of the scoreboard. Briefly, Mick Hill raised Britain's hopes, taking the lead with a fine throw of 82.80, but the real men were only beginning to perform.

Zelezny started indifferently, making a hash of his second throw, and for a while trailing Kimmo Kinnunen, the powerful Finn who set a mark of 84.78 with his third throw. Zelezny's best was still to come, 85.98 for the gold medal.

Backley's best, 81.80, was never going to get him into a medal place, and his grimaces said it all. 'I gave it my best shot, not just tonight but to get here,' he said. 'Eighty-five metres got the gold medal and that's a mediocre throw for a fit Steve Backley. It hurts, but not as much as if I'd been back home watching the event on television. Now I have to get things in order and think about next year, which is what I said last year.'

A lot in his carriage suggested a man who can no longer trust an impressively powerful frame.