European Athletics Championships: Backley and Hill are in their element: Finland is the undisputed 'home' of the javelin and a capacity crowd is already guaranteed for the next two days. Mike Rowbottom reports

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK, deep in the heart of Finland, an annual ritual took place: the small town of Pihtipudas, birthplace of the revered javelin world record breaker Jurma Kinnunen, hosted for the 24th time a gathering of the country's best young throwers.

A total of 200 aspiring individuals received coaching from experts including Finland's Olympic champion of 1988, Tapio Korjus. It is from such a foundation that this country builds a monumental presence in the event.

Korjus, now a coach at the national sports institute, points out that there are 10 Finns who have thrown over 79 metres; that 40 to 50 have bettered 70 metres; and that the man 100th in the national rankings has reached 63 metres. Little wonder that seven Olympic and three world javelin titles have been won by Finnish throwers.

Thus the javelin competition which gets underway in Helsinki tomorrow on the first day of the European Championships is special.

Certainly there is no event more competitive in the entire nine-day programme - all the world's best, including the Olympic and world champion, Jan Zelezny, and the British pair of Steve Backley and Mick Hill, are taking part. But the X-factor is the atmosphere in which it will all take place.

The Olympic Stadium, with a capacity of 40,000, sold out immediately for both tomorrow and Monday, the day of the javelin final. This is a country where spear throwing is front, rather than back page news - as witness the recent reports of the claim that the heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee was doctoring her javelin grip illegally with beer in last month's Goodwill Games.

The ultimate monument to a nation's passion is the tower built overlooking the Olympic Stadium, which was completed in 1939. It is 77.22 metres tall - the exact distance of Matti Jarvinen's world record of 1936.

Jarvinen's success - he won the 1932 Olympic title without troubling to remove his tracksuit trousers, and set 10 world records between 1930 and 1936 - created a formidable expectation in the mind of the Finnish sporting public.

'The Finnish audience is very cruel for our javelin throwers,' Korjus said. 'We must win all the time. We must get the medals.' He knew all about the pressure himself in 1988 as he went into the Seoul Olympics having injured his adductor muscle just a week before. 'We tried to get it better, but we could not,' he recalled.

So Korjus taped up his injury and got on with winning the Olympic gold medal. 'Very many Finnish javelin throwers had some kind of injury when they won the big titles,' he said. Losing is not an option.

But even the proud Finns do not expect to beat Zelezny, the Czech Army captain who has dominated the javelin in the last two years. Not unless his injured shoulder breaks down still further, or unless, as he did in the last European Championships, he fails to qualify.

They may be frail hopes, but they are enough to sustain the handful of top-class throwers at Zelezny's questionable shoulder. Of the three chosen Finns, the one who knows Zelezny of old is the 32-year-old former factory worker Seppo Raty, world champion in 1987 and a former world record holder.

Raty, who lives in the isolated hamlet of Tohmajarven, is a self-contained character who personifies the toughness on which many of his fellow countrymen pride themselves. As there are no indoor training facilities near his home, he trains outdoors in temperatures approaching -30C. On occasions when ice has formed on his javelins, he has melted it off with a blow-torch. Presumably he waited for the implements to cool off before throwing them. Can all this be true? Yes, says Korjus. It is true.

Raty is far from being a newspaperman's dream - which may be a safe way of approaching things. Finland's winner of the 1948 Olympic javelin title, Tapio Rautavaara, went to the other extreme and died at the age of 64 after falling on to a concrete floor while posing for a photograph.

If Raty is not of a mind to chat, it is no matter for the Finnish press. There are always the British to discuss. Backley and Hill are particularly well known; indeed Backley, who has been going out with a Finnish sprinter for over a year, is now widely considered 'half-Finnish', according to Korjus.

'It is surprising,' Backley said. 'Whereas in most European countries people don't know you from Adam, you get recognised in Finland as much as you do in England.'

John Trower, Hill and Backley's coach, has had regular enquiries from Finland this season. How is Mick's knee? How is Steve's adductor? He will be in the stadium which he recalls from the inaugural 1983 World Championships, where Tiina Lillak sent home supporters into delirium by winning with her final throw.

'Every time someone let go of the javelin there was a deathly silence,' Trower recalls. 'Then it erupted. It's something that makes the hairs on the back of a spear thrower's neck stand on end.'

Earlier this year, Hill, the world bronze medallist, had the satisfaction of overtaking one of the leading Finns, Juha Laukonnen, with a final throw of 86.36m in Lahti. Since then, although he has remained physically intact, his mental approach has been less than ideal.

In contrast, Backley has been hampered, as so often in the past two years, by injuries. He has cut his foot. He has strained his adductor. But at least his shoulder, the major cause of his problems last year, appears to be all right.

For Backley, who won the European title with glorious ease four years ago, the long sequence of injuries has become wearisome. 'I'm sick of thinking, 'Yes, I did that, but I had an injury', or 'I did that, but I had that niggle',' he said.

The memory of Korjus is proving something of an inspiration to him right now. 'When you say you are going to a major championships, you are effectively declaring yourself healthy to compete,' he said. 'If you are not, you shouldn't be there.' Perhaps he really is half-Finnish.

(Photograph omitted)