Athletics: Kluft leaps to gold and glory

Magic moments that made 2003 memorable
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The Independent Online

Stade de France, Paris Sunday, 24 August

Day two of the World Athletics Championships in Paris and shortly after 10.15am local time a lean, blonde Swedish athlete stands on the long jump runway. It is the most important moment of Carolina Kluft's career; a moment in which she must define herself.

At 20, the popular history student already has World Indoor and European heptathlon titles to her name, and she has carried a big overnight lead into her concluding day's competition in the Stade de France. But in her opening events she has found herself strongly challenged by France's Eunice Barber, who has finished with a leading mark of 6.61 metres.

The Swede's previous two efforts have failed to register a legal mark. As she contemplates her third and final opportunity, the last of the competition, she knows that another failure will drop her out of the medal reckoning.

Part of the reason for Kluft's impact on athletics has to do not so much with her performance as her nature. Her emotions are transparent.

So it is that she offers the crowd in general, and the concerned knot of blue-and-yellow flag-waving folk in particular, a vivid illustration of her anxious mental state. She talks to herself. She screws up her face. She pummels her thighs and calves. She hunches her shoulders and offers a tentative double thumbs-up to the Swedish supporters high in the stand above her.

Then she moves, working hard, gathering momentum. She takes off well short of the board, having overshot twice on the super-fast runway surface. This time the white flag, rather than the red, goes up. It signifies no surrender.

Kluft's distance flashes up on the digital display: 6.68m. The young Swede sinks to her knees, knowing that the long jump is won and that she is still on course for her target of becoming not just world champion, but only the third woman to break 7,000 points - a target she would go on to achieve.

It is just after 10.16am. And we have witnessed the essential quality of a great athlete.