It remains to be seen whether Carolina Kluft can drag herself, with her swollen left ankle, all the way in the footsteps of Britain's great all-rounder to the top of the medal rostrum in the Olympic Stadium. For one thing, she has no B list rival for the headline billing in the heptathlon here. After the first day and the first four of the seven events, though, the Swedish golden girl - at 22, already the world, Olympic and European champion - has risen to the challenge presented by Eunice Barber, the rejuvenated world champion of 1999, and by the injury she suffered while jumping down off a steeplechase barrier to bound over a hurdle on the training track in the Athletes' Village on Friday morning.
As Britain's Kelly Sotherton, the Olympic bronze medallist in Athens last summer, occupied the Harry Lime role, the third woman at the end of the opening day, Kluft snatched the promise of what would be her most famous victory from the beckoning jaws of defeat. Encouragingly close to her best with a 13.19sec clocking behind Barber's 12.94sec in the opening event, the 100m hurdles, her bandaged left foot failed to support her rising ambition in the high jump. Registering three failures at 1.85m, her second-time clearance at 1.82m was 11cm short of her lifetime best and 9cm shy of Barber's success at 1.91m yesterday.
It left the wounded young champion 153 points adrift, a huge margin in multi-events. "It was impossible to do my run-up as normal," she lamented. "I will have to come back in the shot put."
That she did, with a vengeance. With her first put, Kluft exceeded the 15m mark for the first time, by 2cm. The jig of delight she danced on the in-field confirmed that neither her spirit nor her body were broken. It temporarily gave her the lead, though Barber improved from 10.63m to 12.93m and then finally to 13.20m to nudge back in front by 32 points. With a 23.70sec clocking into a strong headwind in the 200m, compared to Barber's 24.01sec, Kluft cut the deficit to just two points at the end of the first day. The scores stand at 3,973 points to Barber, 3,971 to Kluft, and 3,817 to Sotherton, with the long jump, javelin and 800m to follow today.
"It was really important to respond in the shot put," Kluft reflected, "to show others, and especially myself, what I could do. I had a lot of adrenalin after the high jump and I tried to use the negative energy for something positive in the next event. That is the fun and the beauty of the heptathlon. It's made me realise there must be a meaning to this: to give myself a real test, not as much physically as mentally."
Kluft is a natural fighter. She wrestles once a week in training, ostensibly to improve her elasticity. She also boasts an unbeaten record in the heptathlon - stretching back to the Nordic Youth Championships five years ago, when she fell in the hurdles, picked herself up off the floor and proceeded to make up the deficit on her rivals. With her refreshingly natural zest for competition, which extends to encouraging her rivals openly, the duel between the young Swede who diverts much of her income to support children in Kenya and the 30-year-old Barber - a refugee from the civil war in Sierra Leone who settled in France - always had the makings of a classic. It has not disappointed thus far.
As for Sotherton - who opened with 13.33sec in the hurdles and 1.82m in the high jump before registering a poor 13.27m in the shot and a satisfactory 23.94sec in the 200m - her fluctuating form this summer has hardly been a surprise. Her mother has been recovering an operation to amputate her right leg below the knee. Yvonne Sotherton, who raised her daughter alone on the Isle of Wight, has been suffering from lupus disease, an illness that affects the immune system. "The past few months have been traumatic," her daughter confessed.
Still, it is a measure of how far the junior Sotherton has come that she happens to be in contention for a medal in Helsinki, having failed to qualify for the last World Championships in Paris in 2003, when the emerging Kluft beat Barber on her adopted home patch. Two years ago, Barber's consolation was striking gold in the individual long jump. It was a victory cheered in France, in Sierra Leone and in London.
When Barber fled her homeland in 1991, her sister, Amelia, settled in London and Eunice lived with her for much of 1997, using Crystal Palace as a training base. At the time, she considered switching her allegiance as an international athlete from Sierra Leone to Great Britain. "Why didn't I?" she reflected. "Because nobody approached me. That's why."
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