Backley makes Athens last throw of medal dice

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The Independent Online

Fourteen years ago, a couple of hours after he had competed on his home ground at Crystal Palace, a 21-year-old Steve Backley wandered reflectively over the infield to where his world javelin record throw had landed. Turning to look at the point from where he had released it, 90.98 metres away, he murmured: "That is a long way."

Today, two Olympic silvers, one Olympic bronze, four European golds, three Commonwealth golds and one Commonwealth silver later, the big man from Sidcup will return to the Palace for what will be his final time as an athlete, taking part in the Norwich Union Grand Prix. He has a come a lonmg way. After next month's Olympics, he confirmed yesterday, he will call it a day.

"Athens is the end of the line for me," he said. "This is my last chance, and I want to go out with a good result. This Friday's grand prix in Crystal Palace will be my last event on British soil, but there won't be any time for smelling the roses. I have to approach it professionally and the focus is the Olympics - that is everything to me."

Backley will travel to Athens as an outsider after a season in which he has failed to recapture his form of old. There are almost 30 throwers with better performances this year than Backley's season's best of 81.25m at the Olympic trials in Manchester earlier this month. But he still believes he is in with a shout.

"No one has been dominating the javelin now for quite some time," he said. "It looks like an 87 to 88 metres throw could win it. There are six to eight people who have a chance and I believe that I'm among them.

"I have intentionally only been in two competitions over the summer. I've gradually built up my preparations and my confidence is coming back. I will miss the buzz of competing, but it's time to let a new generation of athletes make their mark."

Many of the new generation of whom he has such high hopes are also taking part at Crystal Palace in what promises to be an intriguing pre-Games indicator.

The men's 100m looks like attracting prime interest - although, one hopes, not for the same reason as last year, when five ran faster than 10 seconds, but faulty equipment meant they all ended up with hand-timings of more than 10 seconds.

This time around, Maurice Greene, the Olympic champion, is certain he will manage another sub-10 second timing, and given that he set the All Comers' record of 9.97sec at the same venue five years ago, that is well within his scope.

Britain's trio of Jason Gardener, Mark Lewis-Francis and Darren Campbell will be seeking to gain a measure of their own Olympic prospects, as will the world champion, Kim Collins.

The men's mile offers Alan Webb the chance to become the first American winner of the Emsley Carr mile since Jim Ryun in 1967. Although he faces the Olympic champion Noah Ngeny, of Kenya, and world bronze medallist Ivan Heshko, of Ukraine, a winner in Stockholm in midweek, it is within his scope.

Chris Rawlinson will seek to keep his ambitions in the 400m hurdles in good shape against a field that includes the fastest men so far this season, Americans James Carter and Joey Woody, the world silver medallist.

Maria Mutola, the defending Olympic 800m champion, will seek to show she has regained form after her surprise defeat in Lausanne earlier this month.

Mutola's training partner, Kelly Holmes, will re-examine her doubts about running the 1500m in the light of her spectacular 800m win over Jolanda Ceplak last Sunday.