Eleven years ago, in the aftermath of a grand prix meeting at Crystal Palace, a powerfully-built 21-year-old stood on the infield at the point where his javelin had landed and stared back towards where he had launched it. "That is a long way," said Steve Backley. So long a way that it was a world record – 90.98 metres.
Eleven years on, a powerfully-built 32-year-old stood on the same infield, gazing out at the javelin arc where his missile had landed to the roaring acclaim of 17,000 spectators. It was another 90m-plus throw – 17cm less than his 1990 effort, but achieved with a javelin design less favourable to long distances. And it meant not only that Steve Backley had won the London Grand Prix title with his sixth throw, but that he had announced his candidature as a leading medal prospect at the World Championships starting a week today.
To anyone with a passing acquaintance with athletics in the last decade that should come as no surprise. Backley, already one of the most consistently excellent performers British athletics has ever had, is showing no sign of lowering his standards. Indeed, his final flourish at the Palace convinces him that he could be on the brink of greater achievements than ever before.
As he reflected upon his performance an hour later, he smiled at the idea that he had revealed his hand too soon. "Maybe I should just have settled for my earlier throw of 86.90 and kept everyone else guessing a bit," he said. "But I don't mind. Maybe there's more there."
Maybe there is. Because the story of Backley as a competitor over the years has, since he broke through to the big time in 1989, been the story of someone always producing more than was expected. All javelin throwers get injured – as with 400 metres runners, injury is virtually a badge of honour. But Backley has demonstrated a resilience over the years that has been outstanding even within the extreme event in which he takes part.
Never more so than in 1996, when, just three months after an operation on a ruptured Achilles tendon he won his second Olympic silver medal behind his perennial friend and rival Jan Zelezny. The Czech Republic thrower improved his world record to a mighty 98.48m within a week of Backley leaving hospital, something which reduced the Briton to the impotent gesture of hurling one of his crutches away. But since then he has returned to spear-hurling in his efforts to catch up – and even though neither he nor any other has managed that, he will travel to Edmonton with real hope in his heart.
For a few dizzying moments in Sydney last September, Backley thought he had finally cracked it. A second-round throw of 89.85m, an Olympic record, precipitated him into the gold medal position. One round later, Zelezny produced the killing response – 90.17m – and Backley had to settle for being the first Briton in any athletics event to win an Olympic medal in three Games.
He looked stoical when he faced the press afterwards; but he admitted that Zelezny's performance had reduced him to tears. And as he looked across at the little figure sitting alongside him the two – who often train together – exchanged wry grins. Backley is just too nice a bloke to get upset for too long.
As he reflected upon his latest performance at Crystal Palace, just half an hour's drive from his home in Chislehurst, someone showed him the world rankings and pointed out that three men were still ahead of him, including – of course – Zelezny. He mouthed the word 'bastard' to himself; but once again, with a smile. After all, he knew that he had put himself right back into the mix with a throw which indicated that his early season problems with an adductor strain, which caused him to miss the World Trials, were safely behind him.
"That was probably my best ever throw," he said. "When I threw my 91.46 in New Zealand in '92 there was an ideal tailwind of between three-to-four metres. It was special for me to do it in this stadium. I train here three or four times a week, so when I come back here to compete, and it's full of people, it's like they are visiting my living room. I couldn't be more comfortable.
"It's nine years since I threw 90 metres. I came very, very close at the Olympics. That would have done the business there. I was delighted with my performance in Sydney, but to go one better would be fantastic."
It was seven years ago that Backley managed to put everything together to defeat a field including all his major rivals, when he won the 1994 European title in Helsinki. No one who was there will forget his sideways victory jog, arms aloft, down the length of the infield.
As he considers the task which lies before him, his optimism is tempered by understandable caution. "I was beginning to think a 90m throw was not there," he said.
"It is good to realise it with the last throw going into Edmonton. But I have got to put it into perspective. I'm still not doing it consistently – Jan threw over 89 metres three times in one evening at Lausanne earlier this month."
As things stand, his main rivals appear likely to be the three currently above him in the 2001 listings – Zelezny, Aki Parviainen of Finland and Kostadinos Gatsioudis of Greece. "Statistically, one of us will be hurt in Edmonton, one will mess up on the day, and one will do really well," Backley said.
Where he fits into that analysis remains to be seen, but if it has anything to do with experience and desire, he will fall into the latter category. If he manages to secure the global title he has sought for so long, it would be one of the most popular victories in the sport.Reuse content