Athletics: Irrepressible Kluft joins élite with outstanding display

World Championships: Swede wins despite almost failing in the long jump as world 100m record holder rediscovers his best form
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The Independent Online

Carolina Kluft became only the third woman to better the magic number of 7,000 points in heptathlon - with a final total of 7,001 - in earning what could be the first of many global titles.

The 20-year-old history student from Sweden set personal bests in six out of the seven events to add a World Championship gold to the European and World Indoor versions she has picked up in the space of the last year, concluding by knocking nearly a second off her fastest 800 metres to take second place on the night, one place ahead of France's former world champion Eunice Barber, who won the silver.

"Thank you so much, you've been wonderful tonight and I loved the experience," Kluft exclaimed within the stadium last night. Easy words, perhaps - but you felt she really meant them.

It was a performance that drew murmurs of admiration and generous applause from a French crowd that had reserved its thunderous acclaim for their home contender.

Seeking to regain the title she won in Seville four years ago, Barber, the former Sierra Leone athlete, eventually had to give way to Luft's irrepressible talent.

In the midst of this towering rivalry, the efforts of Britain's Denise Lewis, competing in her first major championship since winning the 2000 Olympic gold, were a wistful side issue.

The 30-year-old Birchfield Harrier, who has endured heavy criticism for engaging the coaching services of Ekkart Arbeit, formerly in charge of the discredited East German track and field regime, came here hoping to set a marker for next year's defence of her Olympic title.

However, after seeing any hope of a minor medal disappear with a woeful high jump on the first morning - her effort of 1.64m was more than 20cm below her best and the second worst of the day - she could only finish fifth with a total of 6,254, well short of her best of 6,831.

"I could easily have missed this because of all the hassle and negative comments I've had," said Lewis, who estimated she was 75-80 per cent fit. "I said the top eight here, so I've achieved my goal and I've got something to aim for now. I've just got to work harder."

Like Barber, Kluft - born in Boras, the home town of Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander - began her sporting career as a junior footballer. But after being persuaded to follow in the sporting footsteps of her mother, a 6.09m long jumper, the young girl with the grey-blue eyes and flaxen hair soon gave indication of the potential which has been realised in the space of the past year with European and world indoor titles.

She finished 2002 engaged to pole vaulter Patrik Kristiansson and voted Swede of the Year, despite maintaining "I am just a tiny little person in the whole wide world".

That refreshing attitude was evident again here. Unlike some of her more experienced opponents, she found time to chatter happily to the press in between rounds, a bundle of winking, tongue-clicking energy. And even as she faced the prospect of her own exit in the long jump, she joined the home crowd in clapping Barber as she prepared on the runway.

Having set personal bests in all four of her opening day's events - 13.18sec in the 100m hurdles, 1.94m in the high jump, 14.19m in the shot putt and 22.98sec in the 200m - the Swede's overnight score of 4143 was 200 points more than she had previously amassed at that stage, putting her 194 ahead of Barber and on course to join Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who set the world record of 7,291 in 1988, and Russia's Larisa Nikitina, who scored 7,007 a year after, in the 7,000 club.

Barber set out yesterday with some grounds for optimism, given that her personal bests in the three remaining disciplines were superior to Kluft's, but knowing she had to make her advantage tell in the opening event, the long jump, where she had a best of 7.01m compared to Kluft's 6.86m.

As it turned out, the Frenchwoman almost gained a gold medal from the event as Kluft failed to register a legal mark with either her first or second jumps.

The crucial moment of the whole competition occurred at just after 10.15am local time as the young Swede prepared for her last effort knowing that another failure would see her drop away in the same traumatic fashion that Barber had done during the previous World Championships after failing to score in the shot put.

As she stood on the runway, talking to herself, screwing up her face, bashing her thighs and calves, hunching her shoulders and essaying a tentative double thumbs-up to the blue and yellow horde of Swedish fans high up in the stand ahead of her, Kluft was tipping on the brink of her own destiny.

Taking off well short of the board - she had had to shift her starting point back half a metre because she was gaining unexpected speed from the Stade de France's hard Mondo track - she landed at a clearly respectable distance. This time the white rather than the red flag waved. No surrender.

Upon seeing her mark of 6.68m, which won her the event ahead of Barber's 6.61m, Kluft sank briefly to her knees in thankfulness, although she denied that she had been nervous: "I told myself, 'Do this for yourself, always think of it as fun - this will be a new experience for you'."

Successive personal bests of 48.24m and 49.90m in the javelin saw Kluft pull further clear of Barber, who managed 49.60m.

"I never count points nor refer to scoring tables," Kluft said. "I am not a mathematician."

What she is was confirmed here during two days of exuberant achievement. Kluft is more than a world champion. She is a star.