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General News Munich, Germany

Backley snatches historic fourth title

Backley snatches historic fourth title
Patrick F. Merle for the IAAF
9 August 2002 – Munich, Germany – Britain’s Steve Backley joined the thin but illustrious ranks of athletes - Latvia’s Janis Lusis (also javelin), Germany’s Heike Drechsler (long jump) and Russia's Nadyezhda Chizhova (shot) - who have won four consecutive European titles in an individual event, in an evening of many outstanding performances in the Olympic stadium.

While a few Germans stayed home to watch the kick-off of a new football season, the people who had decided to come to Munich's Olympic stadium for the fourth day of the European championships witnessed some historic exploits.

Historic is the only true adjective to describe Steve Backley's achievement in the javelin's final. The veteran British thrower matched the feat of Latvia’s legendary Janis Lusis by winning four consecutive European titles. Lusis had managed his feat from 1962 to 1971.

Backley, second behind Russia's Sergey Makarov’s first round 88.05m, secured his victory on his fifth attempt when he released his spear to 88.54, a season’s best for the Briton. He edged Makarov and Germany's Boris Henry in a contest that saw Czech three time Olympic champion Jan Zelezny unable to register a mark.

"This victory is sweeter than the three others simply because it was harder," Backley confessed. "The javelin has become more competitive over the past 12 years. I remember winning my first title in Split with a margin of more than 4 meters."

In the 400 m hurdles, France's Stephane Diagana, destroyed the field to win his first-ever European title in a world season’s lead of 47.58, beating Czech Republic's Jiri Muzik and Poland's defending champion Pawel Januszewski. The 33-year-old runner, had never been able to run that fast since setting the European record of 47.37 back in 1995.

"The craziest thing is that I felt a cramp in my leg at mid-race but decided to continue anyway," he explained after being delightfully surprised by his wife carrying their new-born baby, who met him unexpectedly as he came off the track.

"This was a complete race, not perfect but complete. I knew I was capable of running such times. This is huge to be here with my family and everything," he continued with tears of joy.

The French had other reasons to celebrate. In the women's 200m final, Muriel Hurtis also made history as she captured France’s first ever gold in the 200m.

The former world junior champion, who was crowned European indoor champion for the second time in March, clinched her first major outdoor senior title as she romped home in 22.43 seconds.

"This is my first title. I am relieved. I had been under a lot of pressure and this is a huge satisfaction. This is in fact a shared happiness for the French team," she added.

Hurtis, only 23, added her name next to those of Irina Privalova, Heike Drechsler and Fanny Blankers-Koen in the prestigious list of past European champions.

"Hurtis was definitely the strongest today," Kim Gevaert of Belgium said after finishing second with a national record of 22.53.

It came as no surprise to see the French athlete breaking the tape victorious as she has only been defeated by non-European contenders this season. Tonight’s honour is the icing on the cake for Hurtis. This year the new French gazelle has improved the French national indoor record, defended her European crown and broken the 11-second-barrier (100m) for the first time in her young career.

The French party stopped after the women’s 100m hurdles though, Patricia Girard having to content herself with the fourth place in a final where the gold was claimed brilliantly by Spain's Glory Alozie in 12.73.

In the women's pole vault, Russia's Svetlana Feofanova surgically won the contest with a modest 4.60m ahead of her teammate Yelena Isinbayeva and Germany's Yvonne Buschbaum. Unable to go to her usual 4.70m heights, she later gave some explanations about deciding not to jump any higher after attaining her gold medal.

"From the beginning on we were bothered by a very furious swirling wind. It was very hard to adjust oneself to this situation," Feofanova said. "I was in good form and ready to jump 4.70 for the title."

Second behind America's world record holder Stacy Dragila in Edmonton last summer, the Russian is, away from the wind drawing close to the world mark of 4.81.

"I have to say that women should be able to go above 5m soon, we just have to learn more from the men's side," she explained.

In the men's 200m final, again the description "historic" is the only one that appropriately fits, as nobody could prevent Greece's Konstantinos Kederis from completing an unprecedented treble. One of the most surprising Olympic champions of 2000, who re-confirmed his talent as a world champion last summer, added the European laurels to his personal collection of medals tonight, running a breathtaking championship record of 19.85.

Kederis shattered his personal best of 20.03 to become the second fastest European in history behind Italy's Pietro Mennea. Moreover this was the first time in European championship history that a Greek male athlete has ever won a gold medal in any event. 

"At least, it looks like I am the winner of a grand slam of 200 m," Kederis explained having no idea that America's Michael Johnson was sitting in the media tribune. "Of course it's hard to say now but I think I will try to break Mennea's European record. I will celebrate before though," he added.

Rarely seen this summer in any European meets, the 29-year-old runner expanded his winning-streak. His last defeat over the distance dates back to Zurich last year when he placed third place behind America's Bernard Williams and Britain’s Christian Malcolm. He has, however, not lost in a major championship final since Sydney.

"Let me say that I ran a divine bend," he commented.

His victory was so emphatic that Portugal’s Francis Obikwelu's performance almost went unnoticed. Despite running 0.36 seconds slower than his rival, the Nigerian-born Portuguese established a new national record of 20.21. Britain’s Marlon Devonish with 20.24 was third.

In the first final of the day, the women's hammer throw, all three medallists threw over the 72m mark, the first time that had been achieved in track and field history. Yet, it was Russia's Olga Kuzenkova who secured the victory after her fifth attempt with a throw of 72.94m. Not only did the Russian army officer, who was the silver medallist in Seville, Sydney and Edmonton, eventually claim her first major title but she also did it with style, setting a new championship record.

"I had to fight to get this medal," she simply admitted, " The weather was fine, the crowd was great, everything was okay.”

The silver medal went to the reigning Olympic champion, Poland’s Kamila Skolimowska who threw over 72.46 m, while the promising French champion Manuela Montebrun, ranked third in Europe this year, completed the podium with 72.04 m.

In the women's high jump qualification, it took Sweden's Kajsa Bergqvist two jumps to ease through to the final. The Swede, who lives and trains in Monaco, is poised to win the final being the only athlete to have jumped higher than 2m. Bergqvist cleared 2.04m in Lausanne on July 2nd. Ulrike Meyfarth's championship record of 2.02, set in 1982 will be in danger.

Another Swede could well make the headlines on Saturday in the women's heptathlon. Caroline Kluft, winner of the world junior title in Kingston last month is in the lead after four events, more then 80 points ahead of her nearest rival.

Earlier in the morning a few big names entered the competition in the 110 m hurdles, the men's 800 and the women's 1500 m.

In the 110m hurdles, Great Britain's world record holder Colin Jackson who is looking for his fourth European gold, broke the tape in 13.41 seconds, recording the fastest time of the day.

"I actually felt good," Jackson said afterwards. "I went out comfortably. It's the first round, so it's good."

The slowest time was recorded by Elton Bitincka of Albania in 14.95. Yet, there were no signs of disappointment for the 19-year-old athlete ran a new national record.

In the 800m, all the favourites advanced to the second round. Germany's defending champion Nils Schumann, recently defeated at the German championships, proved he is back at a competitive level. The 2000 Olympic champion, a disappointing 5th in Edmonton, claimed his heat in 1.46.90, the quickest time of the field.

"The heats are never easy,” said Schumann. “My season hasn't been that good so far but I feel better now, so we will see.”

Switzerland's Andre Bucher, who also qualified, is gradually feeling better. The world champion, out for ten weeks due to injury, ran his second race of his comeback.

"I am coming back. I felt right in this race and took the lead because I didn't want the race to be too slow," the Swiss explained. "After Monaco, I trained hard in St Moritz and if I have chosen to compete here it's because I know I can medal."

While Bucher bids to win his first European medal in an outdoor competition, the Kenyan-born Dane, Wilson Kipketer, the world record holder, second in his heat in 1.47.29, aims for more.

"For me, the first rounds don't count at all, only the final does. I feel strong for three races even though I am not in as good shape as I was two years ago," Kipketer confessed.

Kipketer's friend, Gabriela Szabo of Romania had the similar thoughts after jogging through her first round 1500m race in 4.05.14, 0.10 seconds behind Russia's Tatyana Tomashova.

"This is a qualification, it's different. I was a bit nervous too because this is my first race in a championship since Edmonton."

Portugal's Carla Sacramento, Hungary's Judith Varga, Bulgaria's Daniela Yordanova all advanced to the final along with the Romanian runner.

In the field event qualifications, there were no surprises.

In the men's discus, the leading European, Robert Fazekas of Hungary threw a modest 63.41m to join his rivals, Lithuania's Olympic champion Virgilijus Alekna, Russia's Dimitriy Shevechenko and Estonia's Aleksander Tammert in the final.

In the men's long jump, no athlete dominated the qualification round. Apart from Spain's Yago Lamela, who managed to break the 8 metres barrier with 8.03, the 11 other finallists were all between 7.97 and 7.73 m.

"Everybody has a chance in this contest," Lamela said. "Of course, I am here to win but Chris Tomlinson is a serious candidate as well as many others."