Carolina Kluft: Saintly innocence and endearing loyalty of Sweden's finest export

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The Independent Online

It was reported this week that the richest man on earth is a Swede. Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea, is estimated to be worth £32bn. For a country of only nine million people, Sweden certainly has a disproportionate share of the world's biggest or best: the richest man is an Ingvar, the best female golfer is an Annika, the most highly paid international football manager is a Sven, and the best female athlete is a Carolina.

It was reported this week that the richest man on earth is a Swede. Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea, is estimated to be worth £32bn. For a country of only nine million people, Sweden certainly has a disproportionate share of the world's biggest or best: the richest man is an Ingvar, the best female golfer is an Annika, the most highly paid international football manager is a Sven, and the best female athlete is a Carolina.

Of this accomplished quartet, the only one who still lives in Sweden is the last, 21-year-old Carolina Kluft. In her homeland, for that and several other reasons, she is also the most popular. When she was crowned world heptathlon champion in Paris last summer, her fellow Swedes were exultant. They made her the Swedish sports-woman of the year ahead of the golfer Annika Sorenstam and the footballer Victoria Svensson, no modest endorsement in a country mad on football and golf.

But then they know that in Kluft, Sweden can lay claim to someone extraordinarily special.

She has already become one of only three women heptathletes to break the formidable 7,000-point barrier, an achievement as yet beyond our own Denise Lewis. Moreover, she has done so more cheerfully and graciously than the ruthless world of professional athletics has any right to expect. Sweden lost a modern heroine when the country's Foreign Minister Anna Lindh was brutally murdered last year; in Kluft, albeit on an entirely different stage, it has another.

She is uncomfortable with such talk, however. She is uncomfortable even with the label of best female athlete in the world.

"I don't usually read that kind of thing," she tells me. "I don't sit at home thinking: 'Wow, am I the best in the world?' No way. Never. Never. I am just a little girl in a big world, and that's the way it is." We are conversing in a former brewery on Brick Lane in the East End of London. Brick Lane has traditionally been the hub of the East End's immigrant population, a ghetto first for Huguenots, then Jews, and now Asians. It is not where you might expect to run into a blonde, blue-eyed, Swedish heptathlete.

But the old brewery happens to have been chosen as the place for Kluft to be cast in bronze, as part of a Reebok marketing campaign. To celebrate the return of the Olympic Games to their spiritual home in Athens, the sportswear company has commissioned a series of sculptures of leading athletes, based on friezes in the Parthenon. "The Reebok Sculptures mirroring the Parthenon Friezes will elevate the athletes into the realms of the Greek Classics," states the press release rather grandly, if also meaninglessly.

Such grandiloquence is at odds with Kluft's modesty. When I ask whether she spends much time thinking about winning Olympic gold, she insists that it is not yet in her thoughts at all.

"My goal is to go to Athens to enjoy it, and to feel proud that I am taking part. Many people dream about taking part in the Olympics, so I want to do my best. But if I don't take gold, should I go through my first Olympics only to be disappointed? I want so much to have joy in my heart, to think that it is great even if I don't have personal success."

This kind of talk can come across as saccharine and insincere, but I'm pretty sure that Kluft means what she says. She certainly deserves all the pride radiating across the room from her father, Johnny, an ex-professional footballer who now divides his time between working for an insurance company and managing his gifted daughter.

Before my session with her I grab a few moments with him. He is a trim, wiry man of 50. His English is far more limited than hers, but he does convey something of the bewilderment, as well as the euphoria, that he felt when Carolina pulled ahead of the great Eunice Barber of France to become the world champion. "How do you say? I could not understand it. It was amazing."

He played for Osters and Sundsvall, in the Swedish First Division, then for Norrby in the Second, and was compelled by injury to retire, aged 32. In a European game he was once marked by Norman Hunter of Leeds United, although that, perhaps surprisingly, had nothing to do with his injury-forced retirement.

No, he did not know his near-contemporary in Swedish football, Sven Goran Eriksson. Yes, his wife too is very sporty. She was a long-jumper in the Swedish national team. So nobody was surprised that all four Kluft daughters turned out to be good at sport. "We knew when Carolina was about 16 that she would be very good. But we did not dream she would be this good," he said.

With this, he gestures at the media circus attending the sculpture casting, a circus I then join, becoming the last journalist of the day to conduct a one-to-one interview with Kluft. She must be tired of answering the same questions, but if so she doesn't show it. She treats each one as if it were the first time anyone had ever thought of such an imaginative gambit, including the breathtakingly original: tell me about your childhood.

"We lived in a small village until I was six, where I was always out playing and climbing trees with my sisters. The only organised thing we had was soccer, which I liked a lot, although I have no memories of my father playing. I liked having the soccer team around me. I thought that if I did athletics, I would be all on my own. But then my little sister, Sofia, and I took part in an athletics competition, and I thought 'This is fun'. I liked doing different events, and with boys as well as girls. It was very fun being with the boys more."

Having chosen the heptathlon - sjukamp in Swedish - because it afforded such variety, she soon proved her mettle. In Jamaica just two years ago, she won the World Junior Championship, establishing a junior world record in the process. In Paris she then proved that she was the best senior as well. And there are respected athletics commentators who believe that she will now go on to prove herself the greatest of all time, by exceeding Jackie Joyner-Kersee's record points total of 7,291.

She certainly has time on her side; she turned 21 only two months ago. And she claims that she can still improve considerably.

"I am a more natural jumper than thrower," she says. "Jumping is the most fun, the technique is much easier. I have to work harder at throwing.

When I do something wrong in the high jump I can directly tell my coach, 'This is what I did wrong'. I feel it. In the shot, he has to tell me what I have done wrong. I can't feel it in the same way. I also have to work hard at running. I run all the time in training; running, running, running. And hurdling. I'm pretty tall, which gives me some problem with the technique of hurdling. But I'm getting better at it, and getting better at feeling what I do wrong."

If Kluft were not such a paragon of goodness, these words might be construed as gamesmanship. There's nothing to spread apprehension among a world champion's rivals like the admission that she still has heaps to learn. As for those rivals, she declines to single out any of them as posing a particular threat.

"In Athens we will all start at the same level. There is a bunch of girls who can all do a very good result. Anything can happen, an injury or a three-fault in the long jump, or that you just don't have your day."

I ask whether she is worried about the heat in Athens. After all, living in Sweden is hardly the best preparation. "I think it will be fine," she says. "We will go to Cyprus for pre-camp and train in the heat. And I know to stay in the shadows a lot, and keep my neck and hands very cold always. It is the same for everybody."

Does she have a pre-event routine?

"I have the same warm-up, and listen to the same music. It has to be music with a message, with a good text. I like the music from Disney movies, like The Lion King and Tarzan, because the lyrics are very good." She giggles. "And I also have to have Eeyore, my mascot. Not because I think he gives me luck, but because he reminds me that this is for fun. I won him at a fairground in Vienna, and looking at him reminds me of that, of the rollercoasters and everything. Sport is fun. Sometimes everyone is so serious."

Not least, I venture, the perennially glum and pessimistic Eeyore.

"Yes, he's sad. He's not like me. But we're good for each other. We help each other out."

It is refreshing, levity aside, to find a top sportsperson whose complaint is that sport is taken too seriously. But I wonder if she is also being a little disingenuous? No endeavour with such huge financial rewards can possibly be taken too seriously, can it?

For Kluft I think it can. Besides, the money does not captivate her.

Unlike just about all top Swedish sports stars of modern times, she refuses to decamp for London or Monte Carlo, and therefore cops her country's high rate of income tax.

"I love Sweden," she explains. "My friends and family are there. I could never be anywhere else. I feel safe there. I really don't think money is that important. Not so important that I would leave my friends and family. I need a roof over my head, I need food to eat and I need money to train, and if I can save something for my future, then very fine. But after I leave the sport I will make money in another way."

It is this mix of honesty, patriotism and guilelessness that has so endeared her to her compatriots, as well, of course, as her singular talent for winning. Unsurprisingly, she also has a nice, wholesome all-Swedish romance, with the pole-vaulter Patrik Kristiansson, who won a bronze medal at the World Championships. Should they go on to have children together, their offspring will have genes clad in Lycra.

In the meantime, the child that most concerns Kluft is the 12-year-old girl she sponsors in Kenya.

"But she's not Carolina Kluft's sponsored child," she says firmly.

"She's her own person with her own personality. I spend a lot of time with her but she doesn't know what I do, that I have a famous name. Because what does that mean? It's nothing, nothing, compared to what they are going through. Why should I tell her that I have a gold medal? I hope that she can get pleasure from me as the person I am. I try to give her as much love as I can, and I get so much back. If I had never succeeded in sport, I would still have sponsored a child. They have nothing to do with each other."

Kluft says this almost ferociously. She's not finished, either. "I try to teach kids in my country that others don't have the same opportunity as them. I tell them not to be sad because they don't have a certain toy they want, or because they think they have big ears or a big nose. They must be happy with what they have. I tell them that with love and respect we can all get so much further in this world."

And with this she breaks wind, spits at my feet and lights up a cigarillo. Oh alright, she doesn't. She shakes my hand, smiles sweetly, and glides over to where her proud father is waiting.

Carolina Kluft life and times

1983 Born 2 February in Boras, Sweden, second of four daughters of the footballer Johnny, who played in the Uefa Cup for Osters IF, and the long-jumper Ingalill Kruft. She has three sisters: Martina, 23, a trainee policewoman; Sofia, 19, a Swedish junior international in heptathlon, long jump and hurdles; and Olivia, 12, a school footballer and athlete.

1994 At the age of 11, goes with her sister to a running track and discovers athletics.

2000 In September, wins the World Junior Heptathlon Championship in Santiago, Chile.

2001 Becomes European junior champion in Grosseto, Italy.

2002 Wins the World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica, as well as becoming the European champion.

2003 Crowned world champion in Paris after coming close to breaking the world record with her score of 7,001 points. She also takes gold in the pentathlon at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham.

2004 Wins the world indoor long-jump bronze medal in Budapest. Now lives in Karlskrona and is engaged to the pole-vaulter Patrik Kristiansson.