Backley scrapes into javelin final

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The Independent Online

Some of his most illustrious contemporaries were only yards away in the Olympic Stadium here last night, but the biggest worries for Sally Gunnell, Colin Jackson and Jonathan Edwards were to do with television monitors and microphones. For Steve Backley, it was about striving for a fitting end to one of the most consistently successful careers in the history of British athletics.

Some of his most illustrious contemporaries were only yards away in the Olympic Stadium here last night, but the biggest worries for Sally Gunnell, Colin Jackson and Jonathan Edwards were to do with television monitors and microphones. For Steve Backley, it was about striving for a fitting end to one of the most consistently successful careers in the history of British athletics.

Fifteen years after he first represented his country, at a time when Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram were still running for a living, Backley was trying to qualify for one last Olympic javelin final. It proved to be an evening of unremitting tension, but at the end of it the 35-year-old from Kent had achieved his goal and bows out on the biggest stage of them all tomorrow.

The only British field athlete to win medals at three successive Games, Backley has decided not to punish his body any more. After the Games he will have an operation to replace his right hip, which has been irreparably damaged in the name of his sport.

Four times a European champion, twice a World Championship runner-up, twice an Olympic silver medallist and once a bronze medallist, Backley has been a fixture around the great athletics stadiums of the world, but the biggest prize has always eluded him.

"The Olympics is the one thing that really gets me going," he said before the Games. "To have the opportunity to go back to Athens, to the home of the Olympics, all seems very fitting to be the end of the end for me."

Last night's qualifying competition was divided into two groups of 17, with a minimum of 12 throwers going through to the final. Anyone throwing 81 metres would qualify automatically. Backley was 14th to throw in the first group, which by common consent was the weaker of the two. Yet by the time the Briton had stepped up for the beginning of the end of his career, four rivals had already qualified with their first throws.

Backley's approach was almost leisurely in comparison with some of the young tiros, but this was a man who knows that technique is just as important as sheer physical effort. For a moment the javelin seemed certain to pass the qualifying mark, but it dipped at the last, landing just 40 centimetres short. Backley scowled in disappointment.

By the time his second attempt came around, another thrower had qualified. With five of the first group through, the pressure was building. His throw was better, but only marginally so, now falling just 32 centimetres short of the mark.

Nobody else had reached the qualifying standard when Backley threw for the last time. Again the throw was good, but at 80.39m not good enough. Backley lingered on the track, hands on his knees. Throws of 80.60m, 80.68m and 80.39m showed great consistency, but he knew his fate was in others' hands.

The first round of throws in the second group must have confirmed Backley's worst fears. Five qualified immediately, including Jan Zelezny, who has so often denied Backley, the Briton finishing behind the veteran Czech when he took the Olympic title in Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney. The German, Eriks Rags, then threw 80.84m with his second effort - not enough to qualify automatically but enough to nudge Backley into the 12th and last position for the final.

There were still 11 competitors trying to oust Backley, but failure followed failure and when Isbel Luaces, of Cuba, threw only 79.07m with his last effort, Backley's agony was over. What a story it would be if the man with the golden arm could somehow bow out of tomorrow's final with a golden flourish.

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