Athletics: Kluft a gale-force breath of fresh air

World Championships: Golden girl who stormed Paris is very much a reluctant heroine
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The Independent Online

It is 30 years since Johnny Kluft came face to face with Norman Hunter. "Did he bite my legs?" he echoes, laughing in a first-floor suite of the Eiffel Tower as he casts his mind back to a pre-season match at Elland Road. "No, not at all. I can remember he was a very, very nice person."

It takes a lot to intimidate the Klufts, it seems. A week ago, Johnny watched from the stands in the Stade de France as Carolina, the second-oldest of his four daughters, stared disaster in the face. She smiled straight back at it and brushed it aside. It was the defining moment of the heptathlon competition in the 2003 World Championships and, one suspects, in the career of the young Swede who has emerged as the mega-wattaged new star of world athletics.

A third misjudgement on the long-jump take-off board would have consigned Johnny Kluft's daughter to defeat, and potentially left a psychological scar for the Athens Olympics. But failure, with all of its implications, never crossed her mind. She simply put back her marker an inch or two at the start of the run-way and set off with sufficient room to be sure of registering a valid jump. The result? A distance of 6.68m, some seven centimetres farther than that of Eunice Barber, her closest rival for gold in the heptathlon and a world-class long-jumper.

And so, at the age of 20, in her first year as a qualified senior athlete, the nerveless Kluft proceeded to add the world crown to a medal collection that already included European gold and world indoor gold. Not only that; she broke through the 7,000-point barrier that has proved beyond the reach of Barber, the 1999 world champion from France, and Denise Lewis, the 2000 Olympic champion from Wolverhampton, who finished fifth on her return to major championship competition in Paris. With a tally of 7,001 points, Kluft moved to third place on the world all-time list. The European record set in 1989 by Larisa Nikitina of Russia (7,007 points) is clearly living on borrowed time. And, judging by the relentless progress Kluft has been making these past 12 months, even Jackie Joyner-Kersee's world record (7,291 points) could soon be in peril.

It might not be long before the world is proclaiming the young Swede as the greatest- ever all-round female athlete. For the time being, though, she is the greatest contemporary female athlete - and a shining new stellar entity for track and field. With her effervescent personality, her flaxen hair and her sky-blue eyes, Kluft has become the hottest property in world athletics. Not that she intends to exploit her priceless talent and her highly marketable image.

Unlike Christian Olsson, who won Sweden's second gold of the championships in the triple jump on Monday night, and Kasja Bergkvist, who goes for gold in the high jump today, she has no plans to become a tax exile in Monaco. "It's perfect for me to be in Sweden with my family and friends," she says. "I have a very secure environment around me." That healthy environment includes the companionship of Patrik Kristiansson, who continued the Swedish medal-winning success story here with a bronze in the pole vault. The couple are engaged. Home to Kluft is Vaxjo in the south of Sweden, where her father played First Division football as a striker for Osters IF.

"Carolina won't leave for Monaco," Johnny Kluft says. "She's not interested in making money." And Johnny should know. As his daughter's profile has risen, to such an extent she was voted Swede of the Year in 2002, he has combined his job working for an insurance company with managing Carolina's off-the-track affairs. His objective is to keep all potential distractions low-key on the road to Athens - even if it means low profit. "I don't think it's going to be hard," he says."

It says a lot about Kluft, and indeed about her upbringing, that much of what money she does make is set aside to sponsor a baby in Kenya. The one trip she has planned after Paris is not a promotional tour of Europe or the globe but a visit to see the infant boy. "She sends money every month," her father says. "She loves children. If she can help a child she will do it. That's Carolina."

It's also Carolina that she fights shy of discussing the subject herself, for fear of attracting a Swedish media circus with her to East Africa - and that she pulls a disapproving face when it is suggested to her that she happens to be the new "glamour girl" of world sport.

"Well, I understand what you're saying," she says, after due deliberation. "But I don't understand how you can say that, because I don't think like that, like I'm a star, or - what did you say? - a glamour girl. Just because I do a good heptathlon and people think it's so good and you see it on TV and read about it in newspapers and everything... that doesn't change how I feel inside. I don't feel like a star, just because I've succeeded in something I think is fun. Lots of people do that every day. I'm just a little girl in the big earth. I just do what I enjoy doing and then go home and have a nice time with my friends and my family."

Kluft's mature perspective could hardly have offered a starker contrast to the overblown egotistical histrionics of Jon Drummond at the Stade de France last Sunday. While the 34-year-old sprinter was spitting out his dummy and refusing to go gently into that good night, staging a lie-down protest after his false start in the second round of the 100m, the 20-year-old heptathlete stood on the brink of her own exit, after her two failures in the long jump, sportingly clapping Barber on her way down the runway.

"Carolina is a breath of fresh air," Denise Lewis says admiringly. "She's fantastic. She's ground-breaking. She's given us all something to aim for." She has indeed. But catching up with Kluft's burgeoning talent is not going to be easy.

She set five personal bests in seven events last weekend: 13.18sec in the 100m hurdles; 1.94m in the high jump; 14.19m in the shot put; 22.98sec in the 200m; and 2min 12.12sec in the 800m. And she is getting better with every competition, responding to every challenge, both physically and mentally.

"Carolina is unique," her coach, Agne Bergvall, says. "She can be laughing and joking with the crowd at one moment, but the next moment she can be 100 per cent concentration - like you saw in the long jump on Sunday."

Johnny Kluft knows a little about coping with the big sporting occasion himself. He scored for Osters IF against a Feyenoord team featuring Wim van Hanegem and Wim Jansen in a Uefa Cup first- round defeat in Rotterdam's De Kuip in 1973. Watching his daughter handle the last-jump pressure in the Stade de France last Sunday still has him shaking his head.

"Maybe it will sink in when we go home and watch the video," he says. "She's amazing. She can do that, at only 20 years of age. She is amazing. She's a wonderful person as well - a really wonderful person. I am very proud of her."