Sunshine-girl Kluft the perfect antidote

Simon Turnbull in Limassol
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The Independent Online

It is 9.15am in the lobby of the Miramare Bay Resort, a hotel on the sea-front in Limassol in Cyprus. Carolina Kluft pulls on a peaked cap and ties the straps on her back-pack. She looks like any other holiday-maker. She is, in fact, the golden girl of track and field, the athlete most likely to provide some sparkle when the athletics programme gets under way in the Olympic Stadium in Athens on Friday morning.

The Swede who won the world heptathlon title at the age of 20 last summer is getting ready to depart for morning training with two of her team-mates, high jumpers Stefan Holm and Linus Thornblad. Not that Sweden's chosen track-and-field athletes could be described as a team in the fullest sense. There are only 12 of them in total. The British squad is 58-strong. There is no team bus waiting outside for the Swedes, just two Nissan 4x4s.

Kluft is already heading through the entrance at Limassol Stadium when The Independent on Sunday gets there. She stretches her long, sculpted limbs at track-side. In the 35C heat, it would be misleading to describe her actions as a "warm-up".

Her every move is watched closely by Agne Bergvall, her main coach. She works with four other specialist coaches, among them a wrestling trainer. Kluft wrestles once a week to improve her strength and elasticity. Clearly, she does not know her own strength.

Twisting with a javelin pressed along her shoulder blades, she snaps the spear in two. She laughs, picks up the pointed half and aims it into the grass in-field, à la Jocky Wilson. After throwing a poor 14.19m at the Swedish Championships last weekend, Kluft had mused: "I'm not so much throwing the javelin at the moment as playing darts - that's how bad it looks."

She did, however, set personal bests in the 100m (11.48sec) and the shot put (14.66m). And she cleared a more-than-respectable 1.90m in her first high-jump competition of the year.

We already know from her two-day, seven-event tour de force at the World Championships in Paris last summer that the flaxen-haired Kluft is the world's greatest all-round female athlete. When she reaches her full potential, she could quite possibly be the greatest female athlete the world has ever seen.

Even beyond the heptathlon and the long jump, in which she will also start as a medal contender in Athens, she happens to have exceeded the Swedish triple-jump record in training. She is also rated as a potential pole vault-world record breaker by Miro Zalar, the coach of her fiancé, Patrik Kristiansen, bronze medallist in the event at last year's World Championships, whom she accompanies in his specialist training once a week.

For the time being, though, Olympic history beckons Kluft. No Swedish-born woman has ever won a track-and-field title. Excepting Ludmila Engquist, who was born and raised in Russia and who triumphed in the 100m hurdles as a member of the Swedish team in 1996, you have to go back to the Montreal Olympics of 1976 to find the last native Swede of either sex who struck Olympic gold: Anders Garderud in the 3,000m steeplechase.

Only a disastrous error, or a sudden injury, would seem likely to stop Kluft from succeeding Denise Lewis as heptathlon champion in Athens. With her competition scheduled for next Saturday and Sunday, she has the first chance of Olympic success among the new golden generation of Swedish athletes. Christian Olsson, in the triple jump, and Holm, in the high jump, also head for Athens at the top of the world rankings in their events.

The golden girl takes the pressure of such great expectation in her purposeful, proficient stride as she moves from javelin to hurdles to high jump in the scorching heat at Limassol Stadium. She sails over her first two heights in the high jump, then knocks off the bar at 1.90m. Her face is thunder.

On her second attempt, she dislodges the bar with her backside and the cry of frustration echoes around the empty stadium. Kluft slaps her thighs and urges herself on for another effort. There is no look of joy or satisfaction when she succeeds. Clearly, she is still annoyed with her two failures as she jogs around the in-field, and brings an end to her two-hour session.

Sitting back at the hotel, she shrugs her shoulders at the suggestion of being under pressure - the kind that has driven Paula Radcliffe to complete her Olympic preparations at a secret Spanish location, away from the media spotlight at the British training camp, an hour's drive from Limassol on the west coast of Cyprus.

"I don't feel like I have any pressure," Kluft says. "I feel like I have a big support back home from the Swedish crowd and I don't feel that is something negative. It's wonderful to have that. It's nothing bad.

"And if I don't succeed in the Olympics it's not a big deal. I'm 21 years old. I have more competitions and hopefully more Olympics in front of me. I don't feel like the world is going to end if Carolina Kluft is not going to succeed in the Olympics. I think the world has bigger problems to worry about than if I don't succeed at the Olympics.

"Of course, I will do my best and try to be in my best shape ever. And if I succeed I will be happy. If I don't, I will be deeply disappointed. But life goes on."

Kluft is a young woman well ahead of her tender years as well as her fellow competitors. She diverts much of her monthly earnings towards sponsoring the upbringing of a young boy in Kenya and spends much of her spare time visiting children's cancer wards in Sweden.

Denise Lewis described her as "a breath of fresh air" when she breezed to World Championship gold in Paris last summer and she has unquestionably been a refreshing force in a sport under threat of suffocation from the stench of drugs. As it happens, Kluft competes in the long jump in Athens against Marion Jones, whose whole summer has been clouded by the continuing investigations of the United States Anti-Doping Agency.

"I have no idea what's going on with her or her life," Kluft says. "I read the newspapers but I don't know what's true and what's not. I try to concentrate on myself, on my work. Hopefully, she's going to come to the Olympics and be in good shape.

"That's it. I don't think about it - at all, actually. I can just focus on myself and do my best. I can't do anything about my competitors."

Kluft has been known to help them, though, clapping them down the long jump runway. She also pulls faces and winks at the television cameras when it comes to her turn, and shows a genuine joy for competition that brings a touch of the school sports day to the hard-nosed, cynical world of the international athletics arena.

"I can't wait to get to Athens on Tuesday," she says, leaning back in her chair. "The Olympics is something I've never done before. It's a big adventure for me. It's like going to school. I'm going to be learning new things every day."

And teaching the rest of the athletics world an inspirational thing or two, Sweden's golden girl might well add.