And so it has come to pass. The Olympic track-and-field season is suddenly upon us, what with Usain "Lightning" Bolt having blitzed to a 100m time of 9.76sec in Jamaica last Sunday, with Kelly Sotherton, Jessica Ennis and Britain's other Beijing hopefuls getting ready for the first domestic meeting of note, the Loughborough International a week today, and with the IAAF Grand Prix circuit about to hit Europe with the Fanny Blankers-Koen Games in the Dutch town of Hengelo on Saturday week, 24 May.
Yet something is missing as anticipation builds ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August. Carolina Kluft has abdicated after six years as the undisputed, untouchable queen of the heptathlon. The reigning Olympic and three-times world champion has turned to the long jump and the triple jump in search offresh challenges.
Still only 25, she may yetreturn to the multi-event competition she has made her own. As things stand, though, the majestic Swede qualifies as one of the great invincibles of track and field. Like Herb Elliott, the Australian master of the middle distances who never lost a mile or 1500m race as a senior (over 20) athlete, Kluft has been unbeaten in the heptathlon since graduating from the junior ranks.
Sotherton and Ennis, the Britons who finished third and fourth behind her at last summer's World Championships in Osaka, have never claimed her prized scalp. There is one athlete from these shores, though, who has got the better of Kluft. "Was that in the European Cup?" a greatly amused Julie Hollman enquires, the rare achievement having evidently slipped to the back of her mind.
"I'm trying to think of the year now... 2001? In Austria? Yeah, I do remember, because that was the first time I'd come across Carolina and she was quite barmy. That sticks in my mind. I remember she was really eccentric. She was, like, singing and dancing the whole way through the competition, not a care in the world. It was quite funny at the time, but that's just her natural personality. It's how she gets herself going in the event."
It was indeed in the European Cup in 2001 in Austria – in the Combined Events B League Heptathlon at Ried – that Julie Hollman beat Carolina Kluft. She finished as runner-up to Yuliya Akulenko of Ukraine with 5,933 points; Kluft placed seventh with 5,807 points. The Swede was 18 at the time, competing as a junior against senior athletes.
It remains her last heptathlon defeat, though she did lose an indoor pentathlon in March 2002, taking only the bronze medalbehind Yelena Prokhorova of Russia and Naide Gomes of Portugal at the European Indoor Championships in Vienna.
So Sotherton, who is at a training camp in Italy, and Ennis, who competes in the Yorkshire Championships this weekend, might be getting ready for Beijing with their sights on the Olympic title vacated by Kluft, but it is the lesser-known third woman of the heptathlon in Britain, Hollman, who has the one prize they may now never get. "I might remind Kelly when she gets back from Formia," she says, laughing again. "It's quite funny, really."
Regaining her composure, the 31-year-old Birchfield Harrier – a Birmingham resident but a native of Deeping St James, near Peterborough – considers the bigger picture. "It's a shame that Carolina is not going to be doing the heptathlon in Beijing but she's obviously got her reasons. She's such a great character. She's helped the heptathlon get the good reputation it has now; she's had everybody watching it and it wasn't that well followed before. But she's still young. I'd hope she'll come back to it, because she's such a good role model for the youngsters.
"I think the heptathlon in Beijing will be quite open now. It's going to be very competitive between the first six, I would say, and obviously Kelly and Jess have got great chances. It's looking good for them."
Sotherton, 31, and the 22-year-old Ennis are due to meet on the road to Beijing in the annual Gotzis Heptathlon in Austria from 31 May to 1 June. As for Hollman, who finished fifth in the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester and sixth in Melbourne in 2006, she is at Desenzano in Italy this weekend, tryingto achieve the Olympic qualifying score of 6,000 points. "I just hope that I get that third spot in the British team," she says. "I missed out with injury in 2004 and this will probably be my last year in the heptathlon."
Might her next challenge be taking on a certain Swedish athlete in the long jump and triple jump, then? "Possibly," Hollman says, chuckling. "I have beaten her once before, haven't I?"Reuse content