Backley banking on appliance of science

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS FOCUS: Britain's former javelin world record holder fancies his chances. Mike Rowbottom reports
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The Independent Online
Steve Backley was talking 48 hours after being beaten in Oslo by two of his main rivals for the world javelin title next week. Was he downhearted? Not even faintly. He dealt with each opponent in turn.

Raymond Hecht, the huge German whose winning throw of 92.60 metres was the second furthest ever: "Well, that was Hecht at his very, very best. But now he has put pressure on himself. Once you throw that long, you think to yourself, 'I've got to do that again'."

What about Jan Zelezny, the world and Olympic champion? "Zelezny has proved himself as a great champion, but he has also shown that he can bomb out." Backley, it should be recalled, beat Zelezny, and every other thrower that mattered in winning the European title last year.

The answers might have come straight out of an American positive thinking manual - "Every downside has an up. Search for that silver lining." But you only had to look at Backley's animated face to see that he believed it.

Backley is not currently in the blessed state of total fitness - that is something which eludes almost every exponent of one of the sport's most strenuous events.

As a 21-year-old five years ago, with a world record and Commonwealth and European titles to his name, Backley appeared to have worked out how to cope with the physical demands of his event. But the javelin got him in the end. Metaphorically speaking, he was pinned to the turf by a succession of shoulder, groin, elbow and foot injuries.

Now however - touch wood - he is the best that any seasoned javelin thrower can be, namely relatively fit. And mentally stronger than he has ever been.

One man who has made a big difference to this amiable 26-year-old from Sidcup in the last 12 months is Dr Ron Holder, a South African medical specialist who has worked with other athletes including Roger Black, Zola Budd and the South African javelin thrower, Tom Petranoff.

Specialising in "kinesiology", Holder believes that many injuries among elite sporting performers derive from imperfect balance. Accordingly, he analyses an athlete's stance and then makes apparently tiny alterations by building up inserts within their shoes.

The appliance of science does not require specialised materials. As Backley was happy to demonstrate when he competed in Sheffield last month, his shoes contain differently calculated stacks of torn-up pieces of Yellow Pages, taped together and fixed to the in-sole of his shoes. "This one's to correct my Achilles," he said. "This one's for my back."

By way of demonstration, he took the shoes off, and reached as far as he could down the side of first one leg, then the other. One arm travelled further than the other. On replacing his shoes, and re-establishing his balance, he was able to stretch down fully on both sides.

The proof of the treatment is in the throwing as far as Backley is concerned. Since he started seeing Holder last year, he has - touch that wood again - not had major injury problems.

"The theory is," Backley said, "that if the centre of gravity lies correctly down the centre of your body, you will not get hurt as an athlete."

Backley is not the only recipient of Dr Holder's expertise to be thankful. One old woman whom he treated for arthritis for many years left Holder a Van Gogh in her will.

During his time with the South African rugby side at the World Cup, Holder analysed tapes of New Zealand's mountainous winger, Jonah Lomu, before the final, and concluded that opponents had been trying to tackle him on his strongest side, where his balance was best. The South Africans were advised by Holder to run round Lomu and hit him from the other side. It worked.

Whether Holder's assistance can produce a similar triumph for Backley remains to be seen. But there is no question that he has contributed to his physical and mental well-being.

Backley is at ease with his event, and throwing more consistently than ever before. "I am more experienced now," he said. "In the old days, I would just go out and give it a good belt. Now I am thinking about the throwing a lot more."

He is still competing with both ankles firmly taped. But the tapes will be reduced to a minimum next week. "That is the time to go for it 100 per cent," he said. His warm-up to Gothenburg has involved three meetings in close succession at Oslo, Sheffield and Lahti. "At the end of that, your arm is hanging off," he said. "But I know from the past you come back stronger. With a lot of whizz." He grins. "A lot of whizz."

He believes this year's javelin event is going to be stronger than ever before in terms of general quality. "There have been eight guys over 87 metres this year," he said. "Any one of us could win it. "I think 90 metres will do it," he said. "And I know what I have to do to throw 90 metres." His face shone in anticipation.