Mike Rowbottom: Oh, that old Backley magic at Helsinki 1994
Friday, 22 June 2012
Personally, I remember Helsinki 1994 with a tinge of regret over Roger Black's narrow failure to earn a third consecutive European 400 metres title.
He and Du'Aine Ladejo, the extravagantly talented fellow Briton who had emerged at the top level that year and who beat him into second place, never did get along. I can still remember Black's disdain for the way Ladejo showboated home down the final straight on the last leg of the 400m relay, diminishing a massive lead which had been earned by the previous efforts of his team-mates David McKenzie, Black and Brian Whittle. Ladejo still finished almost two seconds clear of the French team, so there was no serious danger of him losing the gold. But his showmanship was not well received.
Those Europeans of 1994 represented a high water mark for British athletics of what, if football were the sport involved, would probably have been called a Golden Generation. The men's 400m individual and relay golds were just two of six earned by Britain.
Colin Jackson (pictured below left), world and Commonwealth champion – and world record holder – retained his European title at 110m hurdles. Linford Christie, the Olympic, world, Commonwealth and defending European 100m champion, won his third successive title. Sally Gunnell joined him in the grand slam club as she added her first European title to the ones she had already earned in the 400m hurdles in the Olympics, World Championships and Commonwealth Games.
And the sixth British gold in 1994? Ah, that was the sweetest of them all...Steve Backley (pictured below) in the javelin.
Backley broke the world record in the javelin, but never quite managed to earn an Olympic title. The reason can be encapsulated in two words: Jan Železný. This phenomenon from what is now the Czech Republic was one of the smaller throwers on the circuit, but his competitive temperament, sublime technique and whiplash speed earned him three successive Olympic golds between 1992 and 2000.
But if the Olympics were Železný's competition in that era, the Europeans were Backley's – even with Železný in them. The affable policeman's son from Sidcup won four successive European golds between 1990 and 2002. But this was surely his most satisfying.
Backley is a Briton, not a Finn, but by the time he competed in Helsinki in 1994 he felt like an adopted son.
It helped that he was then going out with a girl from Oulu – Finland's former sprinter Tula Kangas – but the main reason for the acclamation which, on the night, was second only to that afforded the Helsinki-born former world champion, Seppo Räty, was that Backley was a mighty competitor in a sport that has always held a particular fascination with Finns.
"There are 42,000 people here, and I don't think they were here to watch the 100 metres," said Backley after completing a jubilant, side-stepping victory celebration into the infield with arms raised having seen Železný's last effort fall well short of his own best effort of 85.20 metres, achieved in the second round, and now good enough for gold.
When I spoke to Backley recently he recalled his discovery of just how special his event was to the Finns several years before those Europeans when he had arrived to compete in Helsinki for the first time: "I had just booked into my hotel and was looking around the city when someone came up to me and said 'You are the javelin thrower?' He wasn't anything to do with athletics. He had just seen my picture in the paper. I was told that a crowd of 55,000 would be expected – and that they were coming to watch the javelin.
"The stadium was packed out. And the amazing thing was, when the javelin was over, people started to leave, even though there were track events still to come."
On that occasion, Backley had defeated Seppo Räty (pictured above), the local hero. But for him to do so again in a European Championship was a big ask. And it was an even bigger ask to beat Železný, the reigning Olympic and world champion and world record holder.
"Jan was just in a different league at the time," recalls Backley. "He wasn't the biggest of throwers, but he was kicking backside like it had never been kicked before.
"When we got into the stadium, though, I was rubbing my hands together because there was a screaming headwind. I always competed better in adversity, whether it was rain, a headwind, delay. I could always get my head round things that would put other people off.
I knew I had to get in early and put the pressure on so that there might be a chance Jan would try too hard and maybe implode."
The crowd roared on their home hero with their customary chant – "Sepp-po, Sepp-po" – and Räty, who was seeking to become the first Finn to win the European javelin title since Hannu Siitonen 20 years earlier, got the first round lead with 81.80m. But Backley, accorded only slightly less uproarious support, was in silver position with 81.04m.
"When we had got to the end of the first round I remember thinking to myself 'No one fancies it'," Backley (pictured above) says. "I suddenly got this tremendous surge of adrenaline. I said to myself 'If you can take control of this competition now you can win it.'
"I was always able to throw well into a headwind, where you need to line the javelin up properly and bring the nose down. I launched this beauty into the wind in the second round and it went out to 85.20. That would have been worth about 88, 89 metres with the wind behind it so it was a very creditable championship-winning throw."
Backley's calculations proved correct. Although Räty improved his performance in the fifth round, he could only manage 82.90, eventually settling for silver ahead of Železný, whose best was a second round effort of 82.58.
Now the man who won four consecutive European javelin titles from 1990 to 2002 is looking forward with fascination as the Europeans return to the Finnish capital.
"Europe is steeped in the heritage of javelin competition, and if you add the fact that that this year's Europeans will be in the home of javelin throwing, it's an ideal place to practise your trade," he says.
"If you have got a passion for javelin throwing, Helsinki is the place to be this summer without a shadow of a doubt."
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.