Date of Birth: 1969
Club: Cambridge H.
Coach(s): John Trower and Calvin Morriss.
A Brilliant Record
Steve Backley became one of the most recognisable faces in athletics from the moment he first pulled on a senior British vest in 1989 to his manner of bowing out at the Olympic Games in Athens with panache and respect because he knew the time was right to retire.
Backley never won a global javelin title, a remarkable outcome in a career where he was in the world’s top 10 every year between 1989 and 2004. But rarely did he show pubic disappointment, always happy with the course his career had taken, where he won the European title on four successive occasions and produced the glorious memory of breaking the world record on a raucous night at Crystal Palace, his home track, in 1990.
On Top Of The World
Backley achieved considerable success as a junior, including a world junior record of 79.50m in 1988, and in his first two years as a senior he became the first Briton to hold the position of javelin’s world No 1. In 1989 he set three UK All-comers landmarks before his Commonwealth record in Budapest and Barcelona. In that year, he won six Grand Prix events and the final.
But 1990 was the summer which took Backley from beyond the sports pages when he became the first British male to set a world record in a throws event. It came on a Monday night in July at the Stockholm Grand Prix, when he threw a fabulous 89.58m to change his life forever. A competitor who had been a cross country runner a youngster found himself on top of the world having smashed the record of 89.10m which was held by Patrik Boden, of Sweden.It sparked a frenetic month for the event because in Oslo, Jan Zelezny, of the Czech Republic, threw 89.66m, before six days later, on July 20, Backley was in charge again at Crystal Palace.
The Briton reclaimed the mark with only his second throw at the Grand Prix meeting in London, taking the distance to 90.98m and sparking wild celebrations. It was the beginning of an amazing decade of duels between Backley and Zelezny. Everyone wanted a piece of Backley - and in an instant he became the face of shampoo company Wash And Go; or as the headlines regularly put it, Wash And Throw! He ended the year being named as the IAAF Male Athlete of 1990, the first Briton to win the award.
His glory at Crystal Palace had arrived with the rough-tailed Németh model of javelin, but this instrument was banned at the end of 1991, his 89.58m was reinstated as the record, and he improved this distance with his third world record of 91.46m in New Zealand in January 1992.
That summer, at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, Zelezny won gold with 89.66m as Backley took bronze with 83.38m, and four years later in Atlanta, the Briton still could not overcome his rival from the Czech Republic, despite climbing up one step on the podium. Zelezny won again, with 88.16m, as Backley took silver with 87.44m. By 1996, Backley had spread his wings further. He had become an author, with his book, The Winning Mind, a fascinating insight into how he prepared for his career. An athlete who based so much of his preparation on ensuring he was correct mentally for an event, here was an understanding of what an athlete goes through to become the best.
There was, of course, no chapter on how to beat Zelezny, with whom Backley enjoyed constant, fabulous confrontations. They were great friends - Backley often trained and socialised with him - but when they stepped into the arena, they knew sentiment counted for nothing. Never more so than in Sydney, on Saturday September 23, 2000, at the Olympic Games.
Gold, But Not For Long
Success was in the air for the whole British team on the second day of the athletics programme in Sydney because in the morning, Sir Steve Redgrave had won a record fifth rowing gold medal. By then he was a triple European champion, regularly beating Zelezny on that stage, and here, in the second round, he was in control when he produced an Olympic record throw of 89.85m and surely Backley's moment had arrived to land the Olympic crown. As his book would tell you, the mind can have a great say in how you deliver at the top level of your profession and as Zelezny was about to throw, an official blocked his path because a medal ceremony was taking place. Who knows what would have happened if he had been allowed to go on, but when the Czech star resumed his run-up, he did so with such speed and power that his throw landed 90.17m and once more Backley had been beaten into second at the Olympics. Yet with that success, he became the Briton in any track and field event to win an Olympic medal at three Games.
In 2002, in Munich, he completed a record-equalling four successive European gold medals, when, lying second to Russian Sergey Makarov’s 88.05m, he produced his best throw of the year in the fifth round, 88.54m, to triumph. He had won his third Commonwealth title in Manchester a fortnight earlier with his opening throw of 86.81m. During his career, Backley was constantly troubled by shoulder and adductor injuries, and as in the Olympics, he finished second twice in the World Championships, in Gothenburg in 1995 and Athens in 1997.
He made his fourth Olympic final in 2004 and typically improved his season’s best from 83.42m to 84.13m, but that was not quite enough for another medal. It was his final performance. Awarded the MBE in the 1995 New Year’s Honours and advanced to OBE in 2003, Backley retired to concentrate on working with his other love, golf, where he has had advised some of the world’s top professionals because of the similarities between swinging a club and throwing a javelin. Both in technique and in the mind. He is also a member of BBC Radio’s athletics commentary team.
International Championships at Javelin
1987: 1st European Juniors
1988: 2nd World Juniors
1989: 1st European Cup, 1st World Cup, 1st World University Games, won IAAF Grand Prix
1990: 1st Commonwealth Games, 1st Europeans
1991: 1st World University Games, dnq 15th Worlds
1992: 3rd Olympics
1993: 4th Worlds
1994: 1st Europeans, 1st Commonwealth Games, 1st World Cup
1995: 3rd European Cup, 2nd Worlds
1996: 2nd Olympics
1997: 1st European Cup, 2nd Worlds
1998: 1st Europeans, 1st World Cup, 2nd Commonwealth Games
1999: 8th Worlds
2000: 2nd Olympics
2001: dnq 14 Worlds
2002: 2nd European Cup, 1st Commonwealth Games, 1st Europeans, 4th World Cup
2003: 9th Worlds
2004: 4th Olympics
UK Internationals: 39 (1989-2004)
Won AAA 1989, 1992, 1998-2000, 2004; Junior 1987; UK 1988-90.
Javelin 91.46 (1992)