Olympics Special

Alert readers may have noticed that the 2004 Summer Olympic Games kicked off last Friday in Athens.

Sweden has 117 athletes battling for a spot on the country’s front pages, back pages and, for the next week or so, most of the ones in between. The question is, do you support your own country’s athletes or Sweden’s? The correct answer, of course, is ‘both’ – so to help you on your way, here’s The Local’s guide to Sweden’s Olympic Hopes.

We’ve all heard of Carolina Klüft and Christian Olsson – maybe even Stefan Holm and Therese Alshammer – but can this country of now nine million citizens really have 117 world class athletes in medal position? In short, no. But there are more than a few medal contenders, many of them in the less than glamorous sports like table tennis and canoeing.

Let’s start with the sure bets. If Carolina Klüft fails to bring home gold in the heptathlon, most of the country’s sports hacks will eat their laptops. The only real issue is whether she will break the all time points record of 7291, set by Jackie Joyner-Kersee at the 1988 Seoul Summer Games. Klüft is already only the third woman to break 7000 points, which she did in Paris last year. And if she was the favourite going into the games, now she might as well just show up for the medal ceremony: her biggest rival, Eunice Barber, will not be competing in the heptathlon due to a recurring hamstring injury.

The 21 year old Klüft, though, isn’t worried about medals. She says that, although winning is great and she’d be disappointed not to win a medal, this is, after all, just an athletic competition, adding that there are a lot more important things going on in the world and whether or not someone wins at the Olympics isn’t a very big deal.

“I am going to go there and have fun. I treat the Olympics like just another competition and if I’m not enjoying myself, I don’t want to be there.”

This has been Klüft’s attitude from the start and although it has endeared her to many around the world, some in Sweden aren’t quite so taken. During competitions, she grimaces, slaps her thighs, paces around with an odd gait before each jump, throw or leap, and this has some Swedes enamoured of jantelagen wondering just who she thinks she is. Well, she’s probably going to be an Olympic Gold medalist come next week and although most Swedish experts don’t think she’ll place in the long jump, there are others who see her as the consummate track and field athlete.

“She is young, she loves what she does and she is one of the most talented athletes we’ve ever produced”, says Gunnar Brink of Radiosporten in Malmö.

Christian Olsson is Sweden’s other big hope for gold. The triple jumper first knew he was on to something when he jumped 9.26 metres at the age of eleven. His jumps have improved with each passing year and with the retirement of his great rival Jonathan Edwards last year he stands more or less alone at the top of the field. But Olsson doesn’t quite see it that way.

“There isn’t anyone specific that I see as big competition,” he said. “Instead there are four or five that I need to keep an eye on. With Edwards it was a duel. This time it’s like a big fight.”

He also says that since having his winning streak broken at Stockholm’s DN Galan last month, he is training like he’s world number two instead of world number one and this “has brought back some of the fire”. The biggest threat to Olsson is probably the young American upstart Melvin Lister, who has jumped further than anyone this year.

28 year old high jumper Stefan Holm is not everyone’s favorite for gold, but he has jumped higher than anyone else this season and topped his personal best both indoors and outdoors. He isn’t a classically built high-jumper, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in speed.

“I’m short, so I really need to get great speed going on the approach and then use that speed to propel me up over the bar.”

Holm has gone unbeaten in 20 meets and while many Swedish sports journalists have him down for silver, he says he is going to Athens to bring home gold.

Another fairly safe medal bet is the women’s football team. They suffered a humiliating 1-0 loss to Japan in their opening match, but Tuesday saw them win against Nigeria, securing a spot in the quarter-finals. In the past year they’ve won Euro 2004 and come in second behind Germany in the World Cup. Pundits have them taking bronze behind the United States and Germany, although after the US fiasco at the World Cup, anything can happen.

Pia Hansen in shooting was a big gold medal hope, but she crashed out of her first event on Monday, finishing ninth. Then on Wednesday she blew her second, erm, shot at a medal, confirming gossip that her heart just isn’t in it anymore.

Wrestling, while not the most aesthetically pleasing sport ever conceived, is one to keep your eye on. Ara Abrahamian and Martin Lidberg, in the 84kg and 96kg classes respectively, are both big hopes for a medal. 29-year-old Abrahamian missed out on a bronze by just one point in Sydney and he sees Athens as his chance to redeem himself.

And then there is Malin Baryard. She is best known to the non-horsey community as the girl who rode into the Gothenberg Horse Show wearing very lacey, very black, very brief underwear, but she is also an expert horsewoman with a shelf full of awards to prove it.

While the Swedes haven’t exactly excelled in the pool so far, they are short course experts, having won a respectable number of medals at last year’s short course World Championships. Stefan Nystrand, Johanna Sjöberg and Therese Alshammer are the three to look out for, although if Alshammer comes away with anything less than gold, we may see a repeat of her ‘diva of the deep’ routine, last seen in Sydney when she sneered at the silver hanging around her neck.

So those are the big names in the big games, but don’t discount the less glamorous sports.

Sweden has produced a number of greats in table tennis over the years, most notably the much celebrated Jan-Ove Waldner, who is a former World Champion and Olympic Gold medalist. He’s through to the quarter finals – defeating the current world number two along the way – on Friday evening but Thursday saw him and his partner Jörgen Persson knocked out of the doubles by the Danish pair.

The international press has Sweden down for four medals: two gold, a silver and a bronze (Klüft and Olsson, Holm and the women footballers). On the other hand, The Local’s wholly unscientific poll of Swedish sports journalists revealed a bunch of patriots: between eight and ten medals was the verdict, with at least three golds.

Finally, a historical footnote, in view of the doping controversy which has tainted the Games’ opening week. Testing for illegal substances wasn’t introduced until the 1968 Games in Mexico City. The first person caught? You guessed it: a Swede. Hans-Gunnar Lilljenvall became the first athlete to be disqualified for drugs after he failed a breath test for alcohol in the modern pentathlon’s shooting stage. Maybe the authorities shouldn’t lower those alcohol taxes after all.

Judi Lembke