Just as Usain Bolt was crossing the finish line in the 1912 Olympic Stadium in Stockholm a week last Friday – his invincibility still intact, for the time being, after he had nipped first place ahead of Richard Thompson in his 100m heat at the DN Galan Diamond League meeting – Carolina Kluft was getting ready to rumble on the long-jump runway.
"Caro! Caro! Caro!" the crowd urged, chanting and clapping her on her way. It seemed just like the old days, when the woman from Karlskrona was the great untouchable of track and field.
Back then, Kluft reigned supreme as the queen of the heptathlon, the two-day, seven-event test of all-round athletic ability (comprising 100m hurdles, high jump, shot, 200m, long jump, javelin and 800m). Her most recent defeat as a heptathlete dates to July 2001, when she finished seventh in the European Cup Combined Events B competition at Ried in Austria – five places behind Britain's Julie Hollman, who now works as the personal assistant to Charles van Commenee, head coach of UK Athletics.
Kluft was an 18-year-old junior at the time. She was never beaten as a senior heptathlete, racking up 19 successive victories between July 2001 and September 2007. In the process, she won three World Championship titles, one Olympic crown and two European Championships. She was 24 and at the peak of her powers when she won her third world title in Osaka in 2007 with a European record of 7,032 points. Only Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the American who won the Olympic crown in Seoul in 1988 with 7,291 points, had ever amassed a greater score.
For some time, while the watching world marvelled at her excellence and at the refreshing manner in which she brought a genuine joy for competition into the hard-nosed international arena, Kluft had talked of moving on to other challenges – of attempting to make it as a long-jump specialist. Nobody took much notice until February 2008. Six months out from the Beijing Olympics, the heptathlon queen announced her sudden abdication.
Two-and-a-half years on (three years on now from what proved to be her last hurrah, in Osaka), the track-and-field world is still struggling to come to terms with Kluft's decision. Everywhere she goes, she is still asked when she will be returning to the heptathlon to challenge Jessica Ennis, the burgeoning young Briton who succeeded her as the world champion in Berlin last summer and as European champion in Barcelona a fortnight ago.
"It's not possible for me to come back to the heptathlon," Kluft said, speaking in a central Stockholm hotel around the corner from the department store where Greta Garbo started her working life as a clerk. "My body is done with heptathlon. I'm struggling just to do one event now.
"Years of hard training and hard work for the heptathlon have given me a lot of problems. All the hard work was worth it but still, it's not worth going back and facing more hard work and maybe more injuries. I feel good being just a one-eventer."
What most people fail to grasp is why someone so dominant as a multi-eventer would want to move on to a single discipline and become not so much an also-ran as an also-jumped.
Kluft's average margin of victory as a senior heptathlete was 367 points. At the DN Galan meeting – where Bolt's two-year domination of the 100m came to an end 90 minutes after his heat win with a defeat in the final against Tyson Gay – Kluft finished seventh in the long jump, with 6.57m. At the European Championships she scraped into the final and placed 11th out of 12. With a best jump of 6.62m in 2010, she stands 46th in the world rankings.
The truth is that even if Kluft had continued as a heptathlete, she would have been unable to defend her World Championship crown in Berlin last year and would have struggled to mount any kind of challenge to Ennis when her European title was on the line in Barcelona a fortnight ago. While jumping at a meeting in Karlskrona in July last year, all three attachments to the hamstring muscle in her right leg were comprehensively ruptured.
Carl Askling, a specialist who has been honoured by the European Athletic Association for his research on hamstring injuries, said: "In all my years as an athletics physio, I have only seen something as bad as this once before."
Kluft has worked wonders to get herself back to international level so swiftly. It will be a truer test of her long-jumping ability next summer, with a full winter's training behind her. Her long-term goal is to challenge for a medal at the London Olympics in 2012. She reached the long-jump final at the Beijing Olympics two years ago, finishing in ninth place. Yet still the question persists: why not the heptathlon?
"I am getting tired of being asked," Kluft confessed. "It's been three years now since I last did a heptathlon. I try to explain why I was empty and why I decided to move on but people don't seem to understand, which is sad. I have to accept that, but for me I've not been a total long-jumper yet because of injuries. I'm looking forward to being injury- free and giving the long jump a real shot.
"I'm not there yet. It's difficult when you've been injured for so long. It was a big boost for me to be on the track again at the European Championships. Still, I have a long way to go. I'm just a little bit more than halfway in my plan for getting back. I have hard work to do this winter.
"I met Kelly Sotherton [of England] in Barcelona and she knows exactly what the heptathlon does to the body. She cannot do it any longer either. She has a back problem and now she will do the 400m. She knows how it is. You have to have a life after the career, so you have to just listen to your body and do what you can.
"I always dreamed as a little girl of doing just one event. For me, it was like: 'I want to have that dream before I quit.' It just felt like good timing. I was ready for it. I still feel like I made a good choice. And I'm not looking back.
"I'm not seeing the heptathlon with sad eyes. I enjoy watching it. I watched it in Barcelona. I feel happy that I can go to the spectator area and watch the girls and support them. It feels kind of good to be on the other side. And it's good for the sport to have new names, new stars."
None shining more brightly than Ennis. The 24-year-old Sheffield woman was still rising in the heptathlon firmament when she finished fourth behind the imperious Kluft at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, but this year she has eclipsed two of the Swede's championship records: in the pentathlon at the World Indoor Championships in Doha in March, and in the heptathlon at the European Championships, where she finished eight points shy of Denise Lewis's British record with a lifetime best tally of 6,823 points.
"And Jessica will get even better, I think," mused Kluft, who breakfasted with Ennis in Barcelona, where the Swedes shared a team hotel with the Brits. "She just has this amazing potential, both mentally and physically, which you need to do great things in the heptathlon. You have to be good in seven events at the same time. And now, with Jessica's progress in the javelin, she doesn't have a weak event.
"If she makes progress in the long jump, she will be breaking my European record for sure. I said to her: 'If you do it in London in 2012, that would be perfect.'
"Jessica's a great heptathlete and a great person. For me, it's just great to see a friend having such good success."Reuse content