Steve Backley on how to revive Britain’s ailing throws events – AW

    Former javelin world record-holder says the nation’s struggling throwing disciplines could be addressed by starting with the schools

    As Steve Backley tells it, the javelin chose him rather than the other way round. Having started his schoolboy athletics journey as a middle-distance athlete, he soon realised he “didn’t have the ticket to the party” when it came to that particular discipline.

    He loved athletics, though, and wanted to keep that connection to the sport. When he attended a meeting and saw former British international Gary Jenson throwing, he was intrigued.

    “It just made sense to me,” says the now 54-year-old. “There are very few times in life, where you come across something and go: ‘I can see why that works and that if I do this and this then that will happen’. You just feel like you’re at home. It’s a very comfortable feeling, knowing that you’re wielding something you were destined to be working with.”

    He carried that feeling with him throughout a career which saw him break the world record, win two Olympic silver medals and a bronze, two world silvers, the European title four times and the Commonwealth title three. Coached by John Trower and pushed to excel by the likes of Mick Hill, Backley was the latest in a line of celebrated British javelin throwers, such as Olympic champion Tessa Sanderson and world champion Fatima Whitbread.

    He fed off a momentum that was already in motion but, since his retirement 20 years ago, it has largely been lost. Trower’s work was dismantled when the governing body decided to go in another direction. “I remember writing to them and saying: ‘Look, this is what’s going to happen’. And that’s why we are where we are,” says Backley.

    Steve Backley (Mark Shearman)

    The current situation leaves him looking for answers.

    He is quick to acknowledge there is a lot of good work being done, there is talent emerging and there have been bright spots. There’s Lawrence Okoye’s impressive European discus bronze from 2022, Nick Miller’s two Commonwealth hammer victories and sixth place in the Tokyo Olympic final, plus Scott Lincoln’s Commonwealth shot put bronze. When it comes to para sport, too, the likes of Hollie Arnold, Dan Pembroke, Aled Davies and Dan Greaves are no strangers to major throws success.

    But Backley sees what he calls “pockets of passion” rather the kind of joined up thinking he experienced in his pomp.

    Backley remains the last British man to contest an Olympic javelin final or compete in the event at a world championships. Goldie Sayers, 2008 Olympic medallist, was the last on the female side, while Sophie Hitchon’s hammer bronze in Rio is the last Olympic medal of any sort from a British thrower.

    Sophie Hitchon (Mark Shearman)

    “The success we had with what John Trower did in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s was down to him pulling people together, putting smart people together and good things happened,” says Backley. “That was dismantled but we need that glue again.”

    Going about tackling the issues facing this side of athletics is a multi-faceted problem which won’t be ω solved quickly. But Backley sees one glaring area at the root of it. Namely, that schoolchildren’s experiences with the disciplines are fleeting.

    In a different era of health and safety, he can remember he and his friends being allowed into his school’s PE cupboard to take a javelin out on to the playing fields at lunchtime, and asking the footballers to shuffle their match over a bit so he could practice a throwing technique still in its infancy.

    Now, though, the athletics offering for most pupils falls into the category of blink and you’ll miss it. If Backley had his way, this would be the first area to be addressed.

    “I think the problem is that athletics is treated as one sport and, as we know, it’s not only one sport,” says the BBC commentator, who also works in property management and motivational speaking. “Excluding the combined events, outdoor track and field athletics has 19 different disciplines.

    “So if athletics has a space in the curriculum to the same level as basketball or gymnastics or whatever, it means that those disciplines are diluted. So take my event, the javelin. If it’s one of 19 disciplines when athletics is seen as one event then what that actually means on a year by year basis is that a child going through the curriculum will have one experience with a javelin. One. One with a high jump, one with a discus and so on. That’s all a PE teacher will have available if they follow the curriculum – and that just doesn’t work.

    “It can happen, of course, but what are the chances of falling in love with something when you have so little exposure to it? And what if you were off school that day? That was your one chance. It barely gets an intro.”

    Lawrence Okoye (Mark Shearman)

    Backley knows it will take the initiative of some purposeful, driven individuals to start turning the tide. He is also more than happy to offer his wealth of experience to the cause. But that has been the case for 20 years now.

    “I often wonder what I could do personally,” he says. “I remember taking an idea to UK Athletics when I first retired. I had this idea that in many ways athletics is built on a series of mentorships. So you might have a local coach or somebody who an athlete could speak to and the higher you go, the better the mentor becomes.

    “Why don’t we design a mentor scheme so that a club athlete can speak to the county athlete, the county athlete can speak to the regional champion, the regional champion speaks to the national champion, the national champion can speak to the most recently retired, and they’re overseen by the champion who’s long since retired and has time to devote to it? That at least puts in place a ladder you can ascend by sharing information.

    “And I remember the feedback at the time questioned whether everyone has that mentality. I was really surprised because I just assume that people have that sharing mentality. I think they do generally.”

    He adds: “I retired 20 years ago and I could count on one hand how many people have approached me asking for help. I’m working with a shot putter at the moment. Their coach approached me and we do a weekly or fortnightly zoom or phone call as a way of offloading ideas. But there’s very little activity, considering how many former champions are still out there. I remember Lynn Davies saying something similar. People just don’t get tapped up.”

    Holly Arnold (Mark Shearman)

    Backley cites the work of people like David Turner at Loughborough University, who coaches Arnold and reigning British champion Bekah Walton, as well as shot put specialist Paul Wilson, mentor of 2022 world champion Chase Ealey and eight-time British champion Lincoln, as reason to believe that all is not lost. He can also see clues to a way back  through what is happening with some of the British team on the track.

    “The conversation is similar in the throws to what we were saying about the middle-distances in the late 1990s or early 2000s. It was: ‘We were so good in the 80s and 90s’,” says Backley. “But what I see now is the successes of Josh Kerr, Jake Wightman, Keely Hodgkinson, Laura Muir and all the others are more manufactured in that they seem to come from a well-structured, supportive system of development.

    “There are some clues there in how to go about this. There’s some great stuff going on. We just need more of the same.”

    Kenny Ikeji (Harvard)

    Britain’s emerging throws talents

    Kenny Ikeji
    Age: 21
    Event: Hammer
    His PB throw of 77.92m won the 2023 NCAA title, set a British U23 record and put him third on the British all-time list.

    Anna Purchase
    Age: 24
    Event: Hammer
    The 2022 Commonwealth finalist also reached the world final in Budapest last year.

    Michael Allison (Getty)

    Michael Allison
    Age: 19
    Event: Javelin
    Britain’s only field event medallist at the European U20 Championships last year, winning bronze, his PB of 76.97m puts him fourth on Britain’s all-time under-20 list.

    Bekah Walton
    Age: 24
    Event: Javelin
    The three-time British champion’s PB of 59.76m put her fourth on the British all-time list.

    Charlotte Payne
    Age: 21
    Event: Hammer
    The youngest British female ever to throw 70m won European U23 silver last year and was a late addition to the British team at the World Championships

    Zara Obamakinwa (Mark Shearman)

    Zara Obamakinwa
    Age: 19
    Event: Discus
    The Blackheath & Bromley athlete broke the 16-year-old UK under-20 record with 55.99m when winning bronze at the UK Champs

    » This article first appeared in the February issue of AW magazine, which you can read here

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