THE MONDAY INTERVIEW : STEVE BACKLEY: Spear carrier demands centre stage
An unheralded Olympic silver in the javelin is spurring the success Steve Backley seeks in Athens, he tells Mike Rowbottom
Monday 21 July 1997
Less than a year earlier in Atlanta, both men had put long histories of illness and injury behind them to take silver medals. Steve Backley's gesture of support spoke of a shared understanding between two of Britain's enduring talents.
When they began their international careers in the mid-to-late 1980s, it seemed as though both athletes were indestructible. Black, in his first senior year of 1986, powered his way to four gold medals at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships. Steve Backley announced his arrival at the top level of javelin throwing with two world records by the time he was 21.
They were in their youthful prime, and everything was going their way. It was, of course, too good to last.
In 1987, Black began what has turned out to be a rollercoaster ride of triumph and misfortune. Four operations on his ankle, hip and knees and a career-threatening viral infection have been counterbalanced by gold and silver medals in the World Championships, a further European title and, last summer, two Olympic silvers.
Backley has a robust physique: at 6ft 5in, he is capable of golf drives well over 300 metres. But his body began to show the strain of one of the sport's most brutally demanding events soon after he took the European and Commonwealth titles in 1990, and shoulder injuries undermined his challenges at the 1992 Olympics and following year's World Championships.
Yet, like Black, he kept coming back, winning the European title in 1994 against a field including every leading thrower, and adding silver medals at the World Championships and Olympics. For both men, injury and illness asked new questions; they have found the answers within themselves. "As individuals we are two people who totally understand what the other has been through," Backley said. "I sat next to Roger on the plane back from Munich after the European Cup, and we had a good old chat. I was saying to him that our careers had pretty much shadowed each other. They have been amazingly similar.
"I believe the athletes who really know their sport are the ones who have had to rebuild after injury. Of course, you have to be gifted in the first place. If you take someone like Iwan Thomas, who is running marvellously right now, I would doubt if he really knows how he does it. He doesn't need to question it, he is competing in an absolutely uninhibited way. But if you get hurt you have to build. You can't just assume it will all come together again. You have to know what you are doing."
Over the years, in tandem with his coach, John Trower, Backley has explored all areas of his event, from the psychological to the bio- mechanical.
Last year, over a few beers, Backley was told by the world and Olympic champion, Jan Zelezny, that he regarded him as the more gifted athlete. But the Czech questioned whether Backley applied himself sufficiently. "He reckoned I was enjoying life too much, that I was sort of doing it for fun," Backley recalled. It was a suggestion which the Briton politely rejected. However, while both men trained in South Africa, he did not pass up the opportunity of observing the technique of the man who has taken the world javelin record to the brink of 100 metres.
Backley has taken on some of Zelezny's drills this winter, and adopted something of the Czech's more rotational style. Those lessons were supplemented last winter when Trower attended a javelin workshop given by Zelezny in the Sierra Nevada. The coach returned with videos and data which were analysed in a bio-mechanical study at Alsager College.
The information flow has been in more than one direction within the peripatetic community formed by the world's best javelin throwers, however. Backley's own throwing style, which involves pulling the javelin to achieve extra momentum, has already been assimilated by many of his rivals.
"The event has changed massively within the last 10 years," he said. "The world record stood at 87 metres for two years. It wasn't a soft one. But now the top 10 in the world will throw over 87 metres. The days when there were two or three top throwers have gone. Now the Russians are coming through, and the Germans, and the Greeks."
Curiously, the nation which has fallen behind is Finland, where javelin throwing is viewed with almost religious fervour.
"They have dropped back because their role model is from the old style of people like Seppo Raty," Backley said. "He's 115 kilos, and he almost waddles in and then smacks the living daylights out of the jav. But there has been such development in throwing recently that it is becoming almost like a different event, more like a jumping event."
Such is the pace of the men's event that he cannot see any man emulating the performance of Tessa Sanderson, who returned to Olympic throwing last year at the age of 40 after three years in retirement. "If you fall too far behind at the moment, you would be lost," he said.
While some throwers have come and gone, Backley, now 28, has always managed to remain in the forefront of the event; and to be one of its most popular exponents. "There's something about the jav. When you throw against people, it's almost like bonding. But I don't have a problem about competing with friends. It's like the rugby mentality for me - beat the living crap out of your opponents, then have a beer with them in the clubhouse."
Backley's balanced, thoughtful attitude to competition is one of the keys to his longevity.
"I think athletics is a test of resilience as much as anything else, but there has to be the desire. It's a test of your desire, your resilience, your intelligence.
"You have to look at the underlying motive for wanting to win. Sometimes it is for the joy of it. Sometimes it's because you want to put other people down. Or sometimes the motive is all down to proving a point.
"When I won the Europeans in Helsinki in '94, it was pure joy for me," he recalled. "Although it was the Europeans, it was the world championships for javelin because everyone was there."
His skipping advance down the infield at the moment of victory brought a momentary vision of Julie Andrews at the start of "The Sound of Music".
Atlanta last year had a very different feel, but was no less satisfying for that. He competed there only 14 weeks after having surgery on a ruptured Achilles tendon."There was more of a sense of personal achievement at the Olympics," he said. "Nine weeks before the Games I managed an 80 metres throw, and I thought: `I can make this.' Two weeks before I got up to 85 metres. But there was no pressure on me, because almost nobody expected me to get a medal."
His satisfaction in a job supremely well done was tempered by his homecoming, where he and others suffered through a general perception brought about by relative lack of British success over a wide range of events.
"I came back from Atlanta with Roger and Matthew Pinsent," he said. "When we got to the airport we had our medals with us, and we were met by reporters and TV crews. And the first question they asked us was were we disappointed by the terrible British performance at the Olympics? Roger dealt with the question, but I wanted to hit the guy. I thought: `What sort of a deal is this?'."
Backley also felt let down by the subsequent lack of acknowledgement of his performance.
"I've spoken to athletes from other countries who came back to tickertape parades and receptions," he said. "When I got back it was almost as if I'd never been away. It felt weird.
"I hadn't even been talked about as a medal contender. I had been on crutches after an operation on a ruptured Achilles tendon operation 14 weeks before the competition, and I missed out on the gold by less than a yard. I didn't do it all for the glory of being on TV or whatever, but what happened afterwards was a kick in the teeth."
Next month in Athens, Backley's motivation may be of the prove-a-point variety. Having wintered without injury for the first time in years, he has recovered from the virus which forced him to pull out of an Oslo meeting with Zelezny and is genuinely looking forward to an open competition.
He believes there are four or five men who could win the gold. "You will be able to throw a blanket over the best throws," he said. Those involved in the blanket finish are likely include be Zelezny, Boris Henry of German, the Greek thrower Kostas Gatsioudis, who would have beaten Backley in last month's European Cup had he not stepped over the line. And, of course, Steve Backley.
"The one thing that motivates me now is to get a global gold," he said. "That is what is missing, and that's what really gets me fired up." The blue touch paper is already smouldering; prepare for fireworks with the first throw.
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