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  Friday, 9 August, 2002, 21:12 GMT 22:12 UK
Backley saves best for last
Steve Backley competes in the European Championships final
Backley has won four straight European golds

Forget for a second the fact that Steve Backley's javelin gold here in Munich made him the first British athlete in history to win four consecutive European Championship golds.

It was the manner of his victory that will have had the genial giant smiling himself to sleep.

Two years ago in Sydney, Backley was moments from finally claiming Olympic gold, only for the great Jan Zelezny to nail an absolute monster at the death and leave him with silver.

For Backley to do the same to someone else, in a competition every bit as good as an Olympics, was sweet indeed.

Javelin throwers always like to get a big mark down early. Land a long one at the start and pressure clamps itself round your rivals' throwing arms.

Catch-up is not an easy game to play. To throw 80m-plus you need to be relaxed.

Tense up and the timing goes and the spear will sail high and then plummet rather than soaring to the heavens.

Steve Backley launches his javelin in the Munich final
Backley will go for gold in Athens

And that was the way it was for so long here. Boris Henry, looking as German as they come in a back-to-front baseball cap, goatee chin and vest worn over t-shirt, stepped up first and powered one out to 85.23m.

The grey-haired Makarov, pre-final favourite, took note and, with a bellow that could be heard in Moscow, hurled 88.05m.

The whole stadium knew it was big. It hung and hung and hung, planting itself a fraction over the 88m mark.

Backley opened with 86.29m, a big throw but only enough to keep him in silver. And you sensed that might be it.

Perfect pedigree

He rarely improves through his series. Sure enough, his next three throws were consistent but never threatening.

And then, when all seemed lost, the true champion in him produced that marvellous effort in the fifth round to edge in front.

For a few moments, the ghost of Helsinki 1983 stirred.

At those World Championships, Britain's Fatima Whitbread led right up to the final throw of the competition, only for Tiina Lillak to steal the gold with her very last attempt.

But this was history being made afresh, nor repeating itself.

Makarov had been such a favourite on Friday that some local bookies were offering odds of 10-1 on a Backley win.

It might look like a giveaway now, but Makarov had won all nine competitions he has entered since February this year, beating both Backley and Zelezny in Sheffield with a monstrous throw of 92.61m - the third longest in history.

His pedigree is about as good as it gets. His father Aleksandr took silver at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, while his wife Oksana is also a former holder of her country's javelin record.

But Backley stood stronger when his time came. This year, too, there was no comeback from his nemesis.

Zelezny needed this one to complete the set. At 36 years old, he isn't going to get another bite at the Euro cherry.

You might think that the three Olympic and three world championship golds that he holds would be enough, or the fact that his world record of 98.48m is likely to last about as long as he does.

But the Europeans were unfinished business for the Czech.

He failed to get through qualifying in 1986 and 1990, finished third in 1994 and then, four years ago, tripped over a piece of elastic in training and tore ligaments in his shoulder.

Yet the jinx refused to budge. In pain from his injured back, strapped up like a parcel, Zelezny was never in it.

This was Steve Backley's night.

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European javelin champion Steve Backley
"It's a big mind game"

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