Backley has last chance for Atlanta

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Just nine weeks after going under the surgeon's knife for an Achilles tendon operation, Britain's European javelin champion Steve Backley returns to action this weekend in a final effort to gain Olympic selection.

The British team for Atlanta will be finalised at midnight after tomorrow's Bupa Games in Gateshead, and although this represents a last chance for Backley, it is far from last ditch.

The 27-year-old former world record holder from Sidcup is ready to fulfil the selectors' request that he show fitness - whatever that might mean. John Trower, Backley's long-time coach, believes he will be able to perform more than adequately.

"Steve is in good shape," Trower said. "He needs a bit more time to get into medal-winning form, and he was looking ideally for a good performance at the London Grand Prix on 12 July, when he will be better again. But he will do what he has to do."

Backley, who, like Jonathan Edwards, was left out of the initial squad pending a show of fitness, will be seeking to throw 80 metres or over to secure the third place alongside Nick Nieland and his training partner Mick Hill, who were first and second in the Olympic trials.

But Colin Mackenzie, who finished third in the trials, could give the selectors cause for some consideration if he finishes above Backley tomorrow.

It was a cruel irony for Backley that a physical weakness should hamper him soon after he published a book about the benefits of positive thinking. But there are few in the sport more capable of coping with injury than Backley, who spent a whole season out with a shoulder injury so tender that he could hardly bear to brush his teeth for a while.

He came back triumphantly in 1994 to retain his European title, and added a world silver last year behind the Olympic champion and the favourite, Jan Zelezny.

Backley had nursed a minor Achilles tendon problem for two years, but when it failed to improve this year he had an operation. "In hindsight," Trower said, "it would have been better to have had it in January rather than April. But once he had made the decision it was almost a relief, because if he wants to be able to compete at top level it was the only thing to be done."

Backley's swift return was helped by a surgical technique which meant he did not need plaster. He spent 10 days on crutches, discarded them for a time, during which he got back to throwing, then returned to them for another five days at a crucial point after the operation, when the tendon was due to heal itself.

He took his original omission from the team well, although it would be true to say he was not thrilled by the policy. But Trower is confident his man will come through. "Jonathan Edwards has cleared the hurdle, and I'm sure Steve will too," he said.

If Backley does do enough, it is still an open question whether he will be joined in the squad by Linford Christie, who has said he will announce on Monday, after competing at Gateshead, if he is defending his 100 metres title. Edwards, meanwhile, competes in the triple jump against Brian Wellman, silver medallist behind him in last year's World Championships.

The men's 800m will see Craig Winrow, Britain's fastest this year, seeking a more convincing run than he managed in the trials to secure the third Atlanta place. Local boy Tony Morrell, third then, will be seeking to frustrate his plans.

The 400 metres appears to be one of the most competitive events. Two men who have already secured Atlanta places, Iwan Thomas and Du'Aine Ladejo, meet in a race that also includes Jamie Baulch, fourth in the trials, last year's European Cup champion Mark Richardson, and America's Derek Mills, who missed out in the US trials by two places earlier this month.