REMEMBER THIS? SPORT'S MAGIC MOMENTS OF 1994 : Backley's bravery holds Finland in thrall From the try that gave Great Britain hope to the goal that even Pele would have been proud of

Click to follow
ATHLETICS : A javelin is travelling through the air within Helsinki's Olympic stadium, shuddering up into the night sky. It seems to be borne by the ear-buzzing furore of thousands upon thousands of Finnish voices.

The man who has launched it, the home country's former world champion, Seppo Raty, is still roaring, his face suffused beneath fair hair. The man who is watching the last throw of the European Championships with more fear, more hope than any is an Englishman, Steve Backley.

Four years earlier, at the European Championships in Split, Backley had been world record holder, 21 years of age, and fit. He had won with ease, and there seemed no limit to his potential.

Four years on, Backley carried the badges of honour that have traditionally attached themselves to exponents of the most physically destructive of athletic disciplines. For a heady year or so, it seemed that he had the savvy and the coaching to avoid thenemesis of all javelin throwers - but he, too, was human.

After a traumatic failure to qualify for the final round of the 1991 World Championships, Backley managed to win an Olympic bronze medal in 1992 despite having one elbow strapped up and a torn adductor muscle.

At the end of that year he had a shoulder operation. For a while he was unable to brush his teeth without pain.

He considered retirement, but recovered in time to compete in the 1993 World Championships. There he injured a muscle in his groin and came fourth.

The year of 1994 had begun promisingly with victories in South Africa, but while out there he cut his foot on a stone on a beach. A few stitches, nothing serious. To an international athlete in this event, however, even the smallest imbalance can have a profound effect.

In compensating for the cut, he brought on a foot ligament injury. Then, uncomfortably close to the European Championships, he suffered another adductor strain.

But the competitor in Backley had ensured his presence - and stimulated by a field lacking none of the world's leading throwers, he had managed a second-round effort of 85.20 metres, his longest throw in two years.

Now, as the final throw flies, only Raty can deny him the distinction of becoming the only man to retain the European javelin title. The spear dips, and drops - well within the yellow line which marked 85 metres. National dismay. Individual elation.

Backley's first reaction was conservative. He smiled, blew out his cheeks and shook the hand of his training partner, Terry McHugh.

It was the manic appearance at the perimeter wall of John Trower, who had coached and bolstered and occasionally conned Backley into being a champion, which seemed to define the moment for him.

Javelin throwers, bounded within the charmed circle of the track, have no obvious outlet for extravagant emotion. There is usually something else going on which makes laps of honour either impossible or inappropriate.

Backley settled for a kind of side-stepping, waving advance into the throwing arc, half-way between jubilation and a light stretching exercise. It was ungainly. It was glorious.