Athletics: Carolina on our minds... but the Olympic golden girl wants to be like everyone else

The Interview - Carolina Kluft: Athens 2004 should be the perfect stage for a model athlete. Simon Turnbull meets a world-beater with feet firmly on the ground
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Four weeks ago, Carolina Kluft was being pushed along a corridor at the Budapest Sport-Arena in a wheel-chair. On Tuesday afternoon she was being fitted for a cast in London. The glowing new golden girl of world athletics was modelling for a copy of the Parthenon friezes rather than being fitted for a support to the leg she damaged at the World Indoor Championships.

The young Swede was such an emphatic winner of the heptathlon title at the outdoor World Championships in Paris last summer, though, that Denise Lewis left the French capital suggesting that only the fickle hand of a fateful injury would prevent Kluft from succeeding her as Olympic champion.

For most favourites in Olympic year, the thought of physical harm and subsequent failure would be too painful a prospect to contemplate. Not Kluft. Sitting at the back of a studio workshop in Brick Lane, she shrugs her shoulders and smiles at the possibility. "It's part of the game, part of the sport," she says, her English as perfect as her finely sculpted features. "I mean, you can never say before an event, 'That team is going to win' - even if they are so much better. Anything can happen in sport. It's not always fair. It's not always good. You have to know that and accept it as part of the game.

"I'm not afraid of that day. I know life goes up, it goes down. Sometimes I'm not going to succeed. I'm going to fail. I'm going to be disappointed, sad. Of course I would be disappointed if it happened to me this year. I would be lying to you if I said other-wise. But maybe the next time I will succeed and I can take something good out of my disappointment. I will try to do better next time."

Two months past her 21st birthday, Carolina Kluft is an exceptionally well-rounded young lady. She is the world's greatest all-round female athlete and potentially the greatest female athlete the world has ever seen. Her heptathlon performance in Paris last August racked up 7,001 points. Only Jackie Joyner-Kersee (with her world- record score of 7,291) and Larisa Nikitina (with her European record of 7,007 points) have registered higher tallies in the seven-event test of ability that comprises the 100m hurdles, shot put, high jump, 200m, long jump, javelin and 800m.

To grasp the breadth of Kluft's exceptional talent, consider that she jumped higher in the Stade de France (1.94m) than Rosemarie Ackerman did to win the individual high jump at the Montreal Olympics in 1976; that she ran faster in the 200m (22.98sec) than the great Irena Szewinska did for Olympic silver in that event in 1964; and that she long-jumped the same distance (6.68m) that won Olympic silver for Britain's Sheila Sherwood in 1968.

Consider, too, that Kluft registered her long-jump mark with her final attempt, coolly pulling herself from the brink of failure after two no-jumps - after winking at the in-field television camera, gesturing in mock concern to the crowd, and sportingly clapping her closest rival, Eunice Barber of France, down the runway. She did the same in Budapest, where she got herself so painfully - and, thankfully, temporarily - hamstrung on the way to the bronze medal in the long jump, an event she intends to contest after challenging for heptathlon gold in Athens.

Kluft's genuine joy for competition has brought a refreshing touch of the school sports day to the hard-nosed business end of the international arena. "She's a breath of fresh air," Denise Lewis said of her in Paris. With her radiant disposition and her stunning good looks - flaxen hair and sky-blue eyes - she happens to be a natural golden girl, with the potential to make pots of gold with even the mildest exploitation of her talent and image. A move to Monte Carlo - where two of her Swedish team-mates, triple-jumper Christian Olsson and high-jumper Kajsa Bergkvist, live and train in tax exile - would very quickly secure her financial future for life. The mere suggestion, however, draws an exasperated sigh that tells you much about the compelling character of Carolina.

"Yeah," she says, shifting in her seat, "but sport and life for me is not about money. It's about enjoying. And I know that after I quit athletics I will have a job of work. I will make my money some other way. I really want to do that. I want to be like every-body else, to work hard and earn my pay.

"And I love Sweden. Why should I go somewhere else? I have my friends and my family in Sweden and I can't be without them. Of course I need money, but as long as I have a roof over my head and food to eat, as long as I can do my training... that's enough. I would never leave Sweden because of money. Never."

Kluft was born in Boras, famed as the home of Grand Slam tennis champions Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg, but now lives in Karlskrona, near her family home in Vaxjo in the south of Sweden. She is the second eldest of four daughters. Her father, Johnny, played as a striker for the local football club, Osters IF. He scored in a Uefa Cup first-round tie in Rotterdam's De Kuip in 1973, against a Feyenoord team featuring Wim van Hanegem and Wim Jansen, two of Rinus Michels' Dutch masters in the 1974 World Cup finals. He and his wife, Ingalill, a former Swedish international long-jumper, could hardly have done a finer job in raising their most famous child.

Carolina's first trip after her World Championships success in Paris last August was not to Monte Carlo - she declined an invitation to the annual World Athletics Gala there - but to Kenya, to visit the young girl she sponsors with a sizeable chunk of her monthly income. It was a visit she kept secret for fear of attracting a Swedish media circus with her to East Africa. "Yeah," she says, reluctant to discuss the matter now, "I don't want the little girl to be known as 'Carolina Kluft's sponsor child'. She is her own personality, without me. She doesn't know anything about my sport or anything like that. It's also something private, a question that is private to my burning heart.

"I had a foster child, a little boy, before I became a famous person, before I succeeded with my sport. And even if I quit my sport tomorrow I will still sponsor the little girl. I will still really fight for this question. But it's something private. It's nothing to do with my sport. That's why I try to keep them separate from each other."

Kluft's father helps her keep her athletics life - the demanding daily training for seven different track-and-field disciplines - separate from the burgeoning demand for her time. He combines his job working for an insurance company with managing her off-the-track affairs. His experience in fending off the attentions of Norman Hunter in a pre-season friendly at Elland Road might come in useful in that respect, although he acknowledges: "The media in Sweden are very good with Carolina. They give her the space she needs."

It probably helps that Johnny Kluft's golden girl is not carrying the burden of a nation's Olympic expectations on her shoulders alone on the road to Athens. The Swedish track-and-field team travel to the Greek capital with a veritable golden generation in tow - Kluft, Olsson, Bergkvist and the high jumper Stefan Holm have all won titles at world level in the past two years.

No native Swedish athlete has struck Olympic gold since Anders Garderud won the 3,000m steeplechase in Montreal in 1976. Ludmila Engqvist did win the 100m hurdles as a Swede in Atlanta in 1996, but she was a product of the old Soviet athletics regime. She was also tainted by ana-bolic steroids. She tested positive before her change of nationality and again while training as a bobsleigher for the 2002 Winter Olympics - after being hailed as an international inspiration for recovering from breast cancer to win a bronze medal at the 1999 World Championships in Seville.

In the shadow of the drugs cloud at present hanging over world athletics in the wake of the THG designer-steroid affair, Kluft is seen as a natural antidote. "Of course I think it's very bad that some people cheat and destroy things for everybody else," she says. "If I could I would destroy every kind of drug, and I hope the cheats will be really busted and get what they deserve. But I can't think about that too much. I have to focus on myself.

"I train hard. I work hard. I know that I'm clean. And I know that I do this because it's fun. I would never, ever think that it's so serious that I would do anything that's wrong because I need to succeed. Because I don't need to succeed. I just train hard and go out to do my best and have fun. If I'm not going to succeed because I'm clean, that's fine with me - fine."

The truth is that sport right now needs Carolina Kluft, a whirlwind breath of fresh air amid the stench of scandal, cynicism and hideously overblown proportion. "I don't feel like a star, just because I've succeeded in something I think is fun," she says. "Lots of people do that every day. I'm just a little girl in the big earth. I just do what I enjoy and then go home and have a nice time with my family and friends."

Carolina Kluft

Born: 2 February 1983 in Boras, Sweden. Lives in Karlskrona, Sweden.

Family: Her father, Johnny, played professional football. Her mother, Ingalill, long-jumped for Sweden. Sisters: Martina, 23, a trainee policewoman; Sofia, 19, Swedish junior international in heptathlon, long jump and hurdles; Olivia, 12, a school footballer and athlete. Carolina is engaged to pole-vaulter Patrik Kristainsson.

Career: 2000: World junior heptathlon champion. 2001: European junior champion. 2002: European champion; World junior champion. 2003: World champion; World indoor pentathlon champion. 2004: World indoor long- jump bronze medallist.