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Today in history… Steve took sport to new heights

12:00am | & Lifestyle

A FIRM fixture in the British national athletics team for a decade-and-a-half, prolific javelin thrower Steve Backley celebrates his 50th birthday today.

During his competitive career, the 6ft 5ins athlete won a string of European, Commonwealth and World Cup gold medals and although the dream of Olympic gold eluded him, he won two silvers and a bronze competing for Britain at four successive games.

Born in the London borough of Bexley, he attended local primary and high schools where he excelled at sport, aided by his impressive physique. In his teens he competed for Bexley in the London Youth Games and in 1988 enrolled at Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, to study for a degree in Physical Education, Sports Science and Recreational Management.

Although he completed his first year at Loughborough, and officially remained on the student register till 2002, his growing prowess with the javelin and the time devoted to training meant he never formally competed his studies there. However, in December 2002 the university awarded him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his success.

Backley’s first significant title came in 1987 when, still in his teens, he threw a distance of 75.14 metres to claim the European junior title. The following year he won silver at the World Junior Championships and also broke the world junior record.

Moving up to senior competition, in July 1990 he became the first British man to set a world record in javelin throwing, with a distance of 89.58 metres at an athletics event in Stockholm. A few weeks later the record was bettered by Czech thrower Jan Zelezny – who would rival Backley throughout his career – but Backley regained it by throwing 90.98 metres at Crystal Palace. It saw him end the year as world record holder and the first British man to be world number one in the sport.

The following year, a Finnish athlete, Seppo Raty, took the record, but in August 1991 the IAAF (International Association of Athletic Federations) declared the new type of javelin used to set all the recent records to be illegal within the sport. It meant the record reverted to the 89.58 metre mark set by Backley in 1990 using a conventional javelin, but he beat it with a new world record of 91.46 metres set in New Zealand in January 1992. It remains his personal best and still stands as the British record in men’s javelin.

Backley was now enjoying success in major competitions, with golds at the 1989 World Cup and the 1990 Commonwealth Games and European Championships. At the 1992 Olympics in Spain he was disappointed to come away with a bronze behind Zelezny and Raty, but was back on form in 1994 with further Commonwealth, European and World Cup gold medals.

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics he took silver behind Zelezny, but won gold again at the 1998 European Championships and World Cup, with a silver at that year’s Commonwealth Games. The 2000 Olympics in Sydney again brought silver, again behind Zelezny, but Backley bounced back in 2002 with gold at the Manchester Commonwealth Games and the European Championships in Munich.

His final chance for Olympic gold was at the 2004 games in Athens, but Backley was now in his mid-30s and in the twilight of his competitive career. After finishing fourth behind a new generation of up-and-coming throwers, he retired from the sport in which he represented his country at junior and senior levels for more than 15 years. Recurring knee problems also dogged the latter part of his career, his body telling him it was time to quit.

It was an exceptional sporting career and one which saw him awarded an MBE in the 1995 New Year Honours and an OBE in 2003. In 2008 he featured on the ITV show “Dancing on Ice”, surviving multiple ‘skate-offs’ to finish seventh – no mean achievement for a man of his stature. In 2012 he joined the BBC athletics commentary team for the London Olympic Games, his experience giving viewers new insight into field events.

He was a hit with viewers and is now a mainstay of the BBC athletics commentary team and the main commentator for field events, as well as running a successful business as a motivational speaker. Away from sport, he married in 2003 and has two teenage daughters, although the marriage ended after 11 years. As he turns 50 today, Steve Backley can look back on an illustrious career at the top of a sport in which he took his country to new heights.

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