Countdown to Beijing: Golden girl remains shining example

The queen of track and field has married her prince and keeps living her fairy tale against a backdrop of dark forces
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The Independent Online

As the indoor season starts in the shadow of Marion Jones' incarceration and Dwain Chambers' mooted return to action, amid all the cynicism threatening to suffocate the sport, a scene from last summer's World Championships in Osaka springs to mind. Glancing down from the main stand in Nagai Stadium at a ghostly 1.30am, a figure in a yellow and blue vest could be seen strolling barefoot down the home straight, accompanied by an official. It was Carolina Kluft, four hours after completing her heptathlon victory, easing the lactic acid out of her system while working up the ability to provide a urine sample to oblige a doping control officer.

As she crossed the finish line, still at walking pace, the Swedish athlete raised both arms in mock celebration of an imaginary race won. After rounding the bend, she jogged to the centre of the in-field and lay spread-eagled on her back. Her companion followed suit, the pair gazing up at the night sky, chatting. Kluft sprang to her feet and launched into a series of somersaults, cartwheels and forward rolls before slowly walking out of the arena towards a doping control room.

It was a surreal sight in an otherwise deserted stadium – a private snapshot that revealed much about the heart and soul of the young woman who happens to be one sparkling reason to be cheerful about the big, bad world of track and field. Kluft was asked what she had said to the Japanese official while they had been lying on the ground. "I told her, 'Look at the stars'," she said.

Athletics is fortunate in the extreme to have such a stellar entity as Kluft at these troubling times. When she breezed to her first World Championship heptathlon title in Paris in 2003, with her infectious joie de vivre for competition, Denise Lewis called her "a breath of fresh air." Five years, three world crowns and one Olympic gold medal later, the woman from Vaxjo remains refreshingly unaffected.

In September she made a secret trip to Scotland to enjoy a quiet wedding with her long-time fiancé, the pole vaulter Patrik Kristiansson – or Patrik Kluft as he is now, having chosen to adopt his wife's surname. They were married in Crichton Parish Church in Midlothian and held a reception at Charleton House, near St Andrews – far from the Hello! photographers, and instead of buying wedding presents, guests were asked to donate money to charity. Kluft diverts a percentage of her earnings to sponsoring children in Africa, talk of which she pointedly shies away from.

Sadly, the 24-year-old will be absent from the Swedish team at the Norwich Union International at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow next Saturday. She has chosen instead to open her season at the Boston Indoor Games that day, contesting the long jump. Her schedule, though, does include the Norwich Union Grand Prix in Birmingham on 16 February: a three-event challenge (long jump, 60m hurdles and 400m) against Kelly Sotherton, the Briton who took the bronze behind her in Osaka.

In the build-up to Beijing, both women intend to compete in the pentathlon at the World Indoor Championships in Valencia in March. So, apparently, does Lyudmila Blonska, the Ukrainian who won the silver medal at the World Championships last August – and who in 2003 tested positive for stanozolol, the steroid that fuelled Ben Johnson's world record 100m run at the Seoul Olympics back in 1988.

Kluft – unbeaten in multi-events competition since 2002, indoors or out – is accustomed to pitting herself against drug offenders. She came 11th in the long jump at the Athens Olympics four years ago, six places behind Jones, who had yet to be formally declared a cheat, though there were grounds for suspicion: her former husband C J Hunter testifying that he injected her with a designer steroid, THG, and the United States Anti Doping Agency's investigation into Jones' involvement with a steroid-peddling laboratory, Balco.

Weary of the tarnishing of her beloved sport, Kluft has proposed the surgical implantation of computer chips in athletes, and the attachment of Global Positioning System transmitters to kit bags, so that the testers can track the movements of the guilty, as well as the innocent. Keeping up with the Joneses, you might call it.