Athletics: Spear carrier Backley treads family roots

Javelin star's father blazed trail in Gateshead but final incentive of Athens gold is now the driving force
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The Independent Online

When the European javelin champion launches his first-round throw in the Norwich Union Super League meeting this evening it will not be the first mark made by a member of the Backley family at Gateshead International Stadium. Not by a long way. In the mists of 1963, John Backley won the Northumberland and Durham 880-yards title on the track by the banks of the Tyne. "It was Gateshead Youth Stadium then," Steve Backley's dad recalled. "It was an ash track with wooden changing rooms. I used to train there."

John Backley hails from Pelaw, little more than a javelin throw from the Inter-national Stadium in Gateshead. Before moving to Kent to work as a policeman in the Metropolitan force, he was a prominent middle-distance runner in his native North-east, a member of the Newcastle club Elswick Harriers. He always wanted his second son to be the next Ovett, Coe or Cram. It was not to be.

"Yeah, as far as dad's concerned, I'm a failed middle-distance runner," Steve Backley joked as he prepared for a lunchtime training session at Crystal Palace. In truth, John Backley could not be more proud of the successful javelin thrower his 34-year-old son has become. And with good reason. His Stephen has won medals at three Olympic Games - a feat that no other British athlete, Ovett, Coe and Cram included, has managed to achieve. His son has also won four European Championships titles, which happens to be the total Ovett, Coe and Cram mustered between them.

It might have been different had Backley junior not suffered a fateful collision as an eight-year-old runner. "I'd been out for a training session in the fields opposite our house and went over the top of a car coming along a main road," he reflected. "I broke my left leg and ended up in traction for about eight weeks.

"I struggled to become a runner as a result of that, and the funny thing is it helped me as a javelin thrower because my left hip's quite stiff; it sort of blocks against the throw. I'm not suggesting all eight-year-old javelin throwers should break their hips. Darwin would probably have a thing or two to say about that."

It is typical that the infectiously buoyant Backley should have turned such a negative into a positive. It is typical, too, that he neglects to mention that he still bears the medical debris from that childhood accident. "His hip was pinned and the pins are still in there," his father confided. "They couldn't get them out. He does get little problems with his hips."

After 14 years of hurling javelins in senior international competition, Steve Backley has suffered so many physical problems it has become an increasing struggle to hold his body together. The latest setback, a knee-cartilage operation in May, has left him racing against the clock to find form before the World Championships, which open in Paris in six weeks' time. This evening's meeting is only his second competition of the season; 12 days ago, he threw 79.66m in freezing conditions at Vaxjo in Sweden.

"It was a poor opener by previous standards," Backley said. "But it was very much just getting back on a horse having had an injury. I'm a bit behind and I'm playing catch-up. But, having said that, I had a very good winter prior to getting hurt and therefore I'm optimistic."

Backley did exceptionally well last year, winning his third Commonwealth title, on home soil in Manchester, and capturing his fourth European crown, at the Olympiastadion in Munich. He has yet to strike gold at the World Championships (he won silvers in Gothenburg in 1995 and in Athens in 1997), but the medal podium dominating his sights is the Olympic one in Athens. Having taken bronze in Barcelona in 1992 and silvers in Atlanta in 1996 and in Sydney in 2000, the pride of Cambridge Harriers is preparing for one last shot at Olympic glory.

A married man since October and now a father-to-be, Backley intends to hang up his spears after a final fling in the Greek capital next summer. "After Athens, that will definitely be it for me," he said. "I'll have given it a really good shot over, what, 15 years? I'll walk away and do something else. And I'll have no regrets. I can honestly say that I've given it every ounce of my energy.

"The fact I haven't won Olympic or World Championships gold has kept me hungry, but it's a nice little consolation that I've managed to win the European title so many times. It's the same people that I've been competing against. It's pretty much the World Championships or Olympics but with a different label."

Indeed, Backley's golden European Championships record glistens all the more for the fact that his great global nemesis, Jan Zelezny, has gleaned just one bronze medal from the quadrennial continental competition. The former Czech soldier has a trio of Olympic gold medals. He also has three World Championships gold medals, and the world record once held by Backley.

Now 37, Zelezny has already thrown 89.06m this summer. But then he knows how revisiting the family roots can inspire his great British rival. Backley beat him in the European Cup at Gateshead back in 1989 - not so much running as throwing in the footsteps of his doting dad.