Miércoles 10 de Agosto de 2005, Ip nş 121

Sweet Carolina
Por Louise France

Carolina Klüft, the Olympic heptathlon champion is, at 22, the world's finest female athlete. But catch her while you can. With an irrepressible spirit and a highly developed social conscience, she's the first to admit there's a whole world beyond sport for her to explore. Louise France visits her secluded Swedish training camp.

There's a word in Swedish - jantelag - that roughly translates as 'whatever you do, never think that you're better than anyone else'. It is one of those words that might prove a problem if, at the age of 22, you're being hailed as the world's greatest female athlete. If you're Olympic champion, European champion, and defending your world title in Helsinki this weekend. If you're unbeaten over your last 12 major competitions and some commentators believe it's only a matter of time before you break the 16-year-old world record.
But with jantelag firmly in mind, Carolina Klüft, the Swedish heptathlete who was little known until she won the Junior World Championships three years ago in Jamaica, is assiduously careful not to boast. 'I don't do this to win golds, to make money, or to be a star,' she tells me animatedly in sing-song English when we meet at her local stadium near her home in Karlskrona, southern Sweden. 'I do this because it's fun. In fact, it's a small part of my life. If I don't succeed it won't be the end of the world.'

Agne Bergvall, Klüft's inscrutable coach, had driven me along straight empty roads, through acres of pine forest, to the deserted stadium. The only sound here is the murmur of the wind in the trees; the only distraction the clouds scudding across the sky. Carolina arrives with her fiance, pole-vaulter Patrik Kristiansson, who won bronze at the 2003 World Championships. The words 'golden' and 'couple' come irresistibly to mind. Klüft is 6ft tall, muscular but lean, white-blonde hair and blue eyes accentuated by her tan. He's handsome, broad-shouldered, square-jawed. They chat as they set off for a gentle warm-up jog around the track. It's safe to say they're not comparing hangovers.

The phrase that recurs again and again when I ask about Klüft is that 'she's a natural'. Mary Peters, 1972 Olympic champion in the pentathlon, the forerunner of the heptathlon, describes her, wonderfully, as 'part gazelle, part kangaroo'. Bergvall, a former decathlete who has been her trainer since 1999, first spotted Klüft at her local sports club when she was 13. Not one easily given to exaggeration, he says: 'She was always there with a group of friends. Not for training, just for joy. Loving to run, to jump. I'd seen many talented athletes but she was talented in a different way. She has something more than everyone else.'

Where does he think that came from? He shrugs. 'She was born with it.'

Her father, Johnny, played football for Osters in the Uefa Cup, her mother, Ingalill, was among Sweden's top long jumpers in the 1970s. Carolina recalls an idyllic childhood in a remote village with her three sisters. She tells me the sweet shop opened for one hour a week. 'We all had problems sitting still. I was always outside playing. Being in the countryside, out in the woods, climbing trees, having water fights.' Mostly she played football. But uncannily prefiguring the remarkable black-and-white pictures celebrity photographer Jason Bell has taken for Reebok, which show her running in the forest and hurdling tree trunks, she used to long jump on the sandy shore of a nearby lake and built her own high jump from bamboo poles and mattresses dragged out from the house.

This bucolic existence ended when, at the age of 12, the family moved into the city of Växjö. She found herself alone and isolated at a new school, where she was bullied. On one unofficial Klüft website there's a childhood picture of a skinny, geeky girl with big plastic specs. She was certainly an awkward young girl. 'I was shy. I didn't have any confidence. I hid behind clothes that covered up my thin wrists. I remember being pushed about by the boys at school and it was pretty tough for me. I took it hard. For six months I didn't want to go to school. But sport became my revenge. Because I could beat these guys at the high jump, I stopped caring about my body shape any more. It was a good lesson to learn.'

The heptathlon is the toughest event in women's athletics. Over two days athletes compete in seven events. On day one, there are the 100metres hurdles, high jump, shot put and 200m. The next morning there is the long jump, followed by the javelin and, finally, a gruelling 800m. Aston Moore is one of the coaches mentoring Kelly Sotherton, a British medal hopeful in Helsinki who won bronze at the Athens Olympics. He says: 'In terms of what it takes out of the athlete, physically and mentally, there's nothing else like it. Some people think these heptathletes are the jack of all trades and master of none, but in fact it takes exceptional talent. Many of them could compete in individual events and win medals.'

There's a dramatic narrative to the heptathlon that goes beyond mere number-crunching the points at the end of each discipline. It's about changing fortunes over seven events; about pushing the body in ways it might not naturally be good at; being mentally resilient enough to rise to the occasion again and again over 48 hours. When, at the end of the event, all the heptathletes run around the track, it's in solidarity and a way of acknowledging the past 48 hours.

Mary Peters recalls some of the anguish of the multi-discipline events. 'I was lying in bed back at the Olympic village before the 800m wondering how on earth I was going to get my adrenaline going again. Everything was on a knife-edge. I had tears in my eyes when I got to the starting blocks.' It would be remembered as a magical moment when, at the age of 33, she beat the favourite Heide Rosendahl in Munich's Olympic stadium.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about Klüft is that she makes the whole thing appear like a run in the park. Mats Wennerholm, a Swedish journalist who knows her well, says: 'Sometimes I doubt her because I can't believe how relaxed she is. But then she turns up on the track and she's a winning machine. She just wants to compete.'

Klüft seems to thrive on the pressure. 'It's like being a kid all the time,' she explains. 'When I see myself in the stadium I'm 12 years old again, just starting out in athletics. I see myself smiling, having fun, playing, being with my friends. That's what sport is about for me. It's a joy. I love to train and to practise and see how far I can go with my body and my brain.'

When she competes, this kind of gusto means that she will wave and wink at the fans. She'll slap her thighs and clap her hands, defuse the tension by sticking out her tongue at a cameraman or sink theatrically to her knees when she achieves a personal best. She uses the crowd to give her momentum. Afterwards she watches the television footage in disbelief. Was that really me? 'I can't help myself,' she says. 'It just comes bubbling over.'

She is only the third woman to break the 7,000 points barrier (with a score of 7,001 at the 2003 World Athletics Championships in Paris). Moore believes that on the right day, given the right competition and the right crowd, she could beat the American Jackie Joyner-Kersee's world record of 7,291 points. Denise Lewis, Britain's heptathlon gold medal winner at the Sydney Olympics, believes Klüft is intent on emulating Joyner-Kersee's back-to-back Olympic titles. Either way, that she can run and jump and throw and smile has helped to elevate one of athletics's Cinderella events into a theatrical high point. To do this at a time when track and field is beleaguered by doping scandals means she's helped to give the sport a much needed makeover. Her breezy confidence impresses former Olympic athlete Steve Cram. 'She's the human face of modern athletics, for sure,' he says. 'There is a little bit of the school sports day about her. She radiates a real sense of enjoyment - something we are in danger of losing from the sport. Elite sport is a harsh environment but she's proved that you don't have to be an automaton.'

During her training session she is restless when her coach forces her to take an eight-minute break between practice races. She confesses to being easily bored, which was one of the attractions of the heptathlon. 'I never made a formal decision [to take it up]. When I was a kid I just did everything. It was boring hanging about just doing the high jump.' It was at the Nordic Athletics Finals in 2000 that coach Bergvall suggested to her parents that she had a future in athletics. It wasn't her best performance - she'd fallen at the fifth hurdle. 'Afterwards I didn't know what I was going to say to her, but she just asked how many points she'd win if she got 1.90metres in the high jump.'

She says she's a natural jumper. In the past, she has competed in the individual long jump and broken the Swedish triple jump record in practice. 'When I jump poorly I know what I've done wrong. But when I throw badly my coach has to tell me.' However Bergvall says she's the only athlete he has encountered who can make technical adjustments in the heat of a competition. 'It's as if she can feel it, hear it, taste it almost. It's her whole body.'

The moment she captured the world's attention was during the long jump at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. The home crowd were supporting France's Eunice Barber. Klüft had two no-jumps on the scoreboard; another failure would see her drop out altogether. She stood on the runway talking to herself, screwing up her face, bashing her thighs. Taking off half a metre further away, she leapt - and this time the umpire held a white flag aloft. The distance was 7cm ahead of Barber.

It's this ability to rise to the occasion instinctively when the pressure is at its most intense that sets her apart. While it might be arduous training for almost 30 hours a week, there is little sense that any of this has been a struggle. She has, unusually for a heptathlete, never been seriously injured, and winning is mostly all she has ever known. As Aston Moore says: 'When an athlete can get into that kind of groove it feeds on itself. They can prove it again and again. They're on a roll. It's difficult to knock them off their pedestal. They think they're going to win because they don't know any different.'

To meet Carolina Klüft is to meet a woman who is sensible, uncomplicated, accommodating. After all, she was willing to stand on a rock for two hours, damp and uncomplaining, for one of Jason Bell's photographs - and still turn up for four hours' training afterwards. But she is not unemotional. She talks with horror about knowing Swedes who died in the Boxing Day tsunami - among Europeans, tourists from Scandinavia numbered the largest loss of life. 'I watched on television with friends and we couldn't comprehend the figures. Hundreds of thousands dead, not just Swedes. We couldn't imagine it. Such a lot of people. You realise, here we are in Sweden, such a secure environment. But if you happened to go on vacation ... but equally, thousands die from Aids in Africa and no one hardly mentions it.'

Since the age of 16 Klüft has sponsored poor children in Kenya. She once turned down a chance to earn £53,000 in prize money in Monte Carlo because it clashed with a visit to one of the villages to which she sends money. Forcefully, she says: 'I have always done this. It's nothing to do with my sporting life. I don't do this for the PR. It is something I want to do just for me.' She has quizzed her sponsors, Reebok, about the conditions in their factories. 'How could I have gone with them without asking? I've talked to them about child labour, working hours, decent pay. If I could, I'd go to every factory [to check], but I trust what they say to me.' Andy Towne, vice-president of marketing for Reebok Europe, says: 'Carolina has got human, humble qualities. She likes to say she's a little girl in a big world. She has a kind of authenticity which is unique.'

Her greatest professional fear is being accused of using drugs. She fears someone may spike a bottle of water or a plate of food she leaves unattended. 'It scares me,' she says, thumping her palms together. 'It scares me a lot. To be innocent and judged must be one of the worst things. People would spit on me in the street [if she were to be revealed as a drugs cheat]. I would have to leave my country, my family, my friends. It would be a disaster. Of course I try to think the best of people, but too much is at stake. It would destroy my life.'

Sometimes it is easy to forget that Klüft is still only 22. Although she is prone to grandly idealistic statements - she once said she'd prefer world peace to a world record - she has learnt to be less trusting. Fame and success have hardened her. 'When I won the junior world title in Chile at 17 I had no idea what train I had jumped on,' she agrees. The relationship with Patrik is predictably scrutinised. 'People are constantly comparing us, even though we're in totally different events. At the moment, things are going pretty good for me. But during the Olympics [when Kristiansson failed to win a medal] it was tough for him. That can be hard.' She says she'll be far more nervous watching him in Helsinki than she will be about her own event. 'We're a couple but not because we're both in sport. We met, we fell in love. It wasn't a career move.'

Unlike others in the national athletics team, such as triple jumper Christian Olsson and high jumper Kajsa Bergqvist, she has no intention of avoiding Sweden's high income tax by leaving the country. Her father describes a close-knit family: he combines a part-time job in insurance with managing both his daughter and Patrik. His wife answers all the fan mail and the whole family (Carolina has three sisters, Sophia, Martina and Olivia) meet up for holidays. Being away from her family and friends agitates her. At last month's European Cup in Jyväskylä, Finland, she rang home feeling miserable. 'My body wasn't moving in the way I expected it to. My brain wanted to do it but my legs didn't. I felt tired, physically and mentally. I'd done a lot of competitions, living out of a suitcase, not seeing my family for a long time. I know people have to do that, but for me it's very tough.'

What else can Klüft achieve? Helsinki is her first major event since her Olympic gold and she loves nothing more than a passionate crowd and thrives on the intensity of the big event. Her coach tells me that heptathletes don't usually reach their peak until they are 28, which would take Klüft to the next Olympics in Beijing and beyond. I'm not sure that she'll want to compete much longer than that. Denise Lewis agrees: 'I used to joke that she is an earth chick - a girl who wants to save the world. And good luck to her for that. I think that's why she won't be around too long in athletics.'

'I'd like a normal life,' Klüft says as we prepare to part. 'Far away from sport, at least to begin with. Some people dream about being famous and it's not like I'm complaining. But being able to do what you like, to be with your family, that's what life is really about. When I don't feel this is giving me anything more, I will stop.'

And with that she insists on driving me to the airport before going to the supermarket with Patrik to buy food for dinner. The new face of women's athletics might just be reinforcing the notion that she is really no better than anyone else, but somehow I suspect she means it.

  07/08/2005. The Guardian.