Athletics: Kallur turns up the heat as British assets freeze

Swedes arrive with record of achievement in startling contrast to their hosts

When Ed Warner took up his post as the first chairman of UK Athletics the week before last he happened to mention that the evening he spent watching the track and field action on a family trip to the Athens Olympics in 2004 was the one in which Paula Radcliffe failed to reach the finish line in the marathon, all three British sprinters failed to make it to the final of the men's 100m and Phillips Idowu failed to make a valid mark in the final of the triple jump.

"We sat at one end of the stadium surrounded by Swedes, who had a great time because they won the high jump right in front of us," Warner recalled. "They got another gold medal, I think. Fantastic for them, but what a great disappointment for us."

There were in fact two Swedish golds in the space of 15 minutes that night, courtesy of Stefan Holm in the high jump and Christian Olsson in the triple jump. There was also a victory ceremony for Carolina Kluft, following the completion of the heptathlon late the previous day. With the man on the public address system greeting each Swedish success with a different Abba track, it was like being on the set of a Mamma Mia! production.

Thankfully, there was no repeat at the European Championships in Gothenburg last summer. Of the Abba-fest, that is. The gold medals kept coming for Sweden's athletes - for Kluft in the heptathlon, for Susanna Kallur in the 100m hurdles and for Olsson in the triple jump. There was some disappointment in the Ullevi Stadium that Holm, in the men's high jump, and Kajsa Bergqvist, in the women's high jump, could not make it five golds for the hosts.

All of which puts the downturn in fortunes for British athletics into painfully sharp perspective. In the period from 1966 to 1998, Sweden had just one European champion; Britain had 37. At the start of a new year and a new indoor season - which opens with the Swedes competing in Glasgow next Saturday in the Norwich Union International - for the first time in history Britain has no individual European outdoor track and field champion (the lone gold in Gothenburg having come in the men's 4 x 100m relay team).

The new chairman of UK Athletics will have much to ponder when he takes his seat in the stands at the Kelvin Hall: just how Sweden (with a population of nine million, an annual athletics budget of £3m and not one full-time coach in the employ of the national federation) can have six athletes ranked in the world's top four in their disciplines while Britain (with a population of 60m, an athletics budget of £20m and an army of coaches) can have not one athlete in the world's top six.

It is probably just as well that Kluft and Holm will be absent from Glasgow on Saturday, although both intend to be in Birmingham in March for the European Indoor Championships - going for gold alongside Kallur, Olsson and Bergqvist, who will all be in action for Sweden at the Kelvin Hall.

Kluft has been the golden girl of Swedish athletics ever since she embarked on a senior career in which she remains unbeaten as a heptathlete outdoors and a pentathlete indoors. Last Monday, though, the beloved "Caro"was formally eclipsed by "Sanna" - the younger of the hurdling Kallur twins - in Sweden's national sporting affections.

At the end of a three-hour public telephone vote at the Globen arena in Stockholm, Susanna Kallur was presented with Sweden's premier sporting award, the Jerringspriset, by King Carl VXI Gustav. The 25-year-old not only beat Kluft, who finished ninth in the poll, she also trumped Tre Kronor - the Swedish men's ice hockey team whose unprecedented Olympic and World Championship successes sparked national parades last year, and who are known by the nation's symbol, three crowns.

There was not a little irony in that. Kallur's father, Anders, is a Swedish ice hockey legend. He won four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders. Kallur and her sister, Jenny - who beat her into the world by four minutes but finished behind her in Gothenburg last summer - were born on New York's Long Island, at Huntington.

They spent their first five years living in the United States but both are track and field products of the Falu IK club in Falun, 140 miles north west of Stockholm.

"I never thought I would beat Tre Kronor," Susanna said, reflecting on her award and looking to the year ahead. "It beats everything, to take the prize that the Swedish people have voted for. Last year was a dream for me, winning a gold medal in my own country, but I have to take things forward now. Glasgow is the start of another big year."