News26 Aug 2004

Secrets of Swedish Success


Carolina Kluft of Sweden celebrates after the Javelin Throw of the Heptathlon (© Getty Images)

Athens, GreeceAfter decades in the Olympic wilderness, the Athens gold rush courtesy of Klüft, Holm and Olsson means Sweden has regained its trendsetter image, not to mention self-respect. The big question, of course, is how on earth it has managed to pull it off.

As with all comebacks, there is not one single answer and much that is still in the realms of astrology. Take, for instance, the year 1976 when the fates conspired to bring Stefan Holm, Kajsa Bergquist, Staffan Strand and Robert Kronberg into the world. Swedes are far from superstitious but the class of 1947 led by the imperious Anders Gärderud was in desperate need of revision. Now that has finally been laid to rest the Swedish media have a new tag to play with. But no one can really say why this has happened.

Equally inexplicable is the varied background of the three gold medallists. It is not as though there was a common source, coach or club that could be pointed to for an easy explanation. One might as well point to a happy alignment of the planets. Olsson claims he was inspired by Jonathan Edwards exploits in Gothenburg, while Klüft’s future depended on a chance visit to an athletics track.

Inevitably for the professional era of sport, thoughts of hard cash are not far away and lucre has certainly played some part. All the talk in 1995 was the crushing deficit of 24 million kronor ($3.5m) that the Gothenburg World championships had bequeathed. But then, in-stepped insurance company Folksam to put some financial muscle behind the Swedish Grand Prix of five meetings as well as a youth project. At 19million kronor over four years it was by far Swedish athletics’ biggest injection of cash ever. It goes without saying that the money gave elite sport a much-needed boost.

Athletics also receives money from the Swedish Olympic Committee during the Olympic cycle. But as Bergqvist and Olsson’s coach Yannick Tregaro points out, that this is not cash in the hand but comes in form of training stipends, kit vouchers and travel expenses. “There’s nothing from the federation, the money comes from the clubs in the first instance,” he says. 

Infrastructure has improved over the years. Given the need to combat the climate for what is essentially an outdoor sport, Swedish communes (regional councils) have constructed no fewer than 25 sports halls containing 200 metre tracks. It partly explains why it is the technical events like hurdling and jumping that have experienced a great leap forward, while distance running is still living very much in the shadow of their success.

The more prosaic phenomenon of leading by example is a factor in attracting talent. Since Klüft triumphed in Paris, last year sports halls around the country have seen a 40 percent increase in youngsters flooding to courses. Sweden had the example for years of Patrik Sjõberg rubbing shoulders with the international elite and Holm points to both him and Bergquist as catalysts for him personally: “When Kajsa did well we thought, why not us too? We’ve got a talented generation of athletes with Carro (Klüft) and Christian at the front. We also work with the long term in mind and always with the same coach. But Kajsa showed us that Swedes could compete on an equal footing in the international arena”

To understand how important this is to the national psyche, it is necessary to appreciate that despite Sweden’s reputation in the rest of the world as enjoying an advanced culture, Scandinavians tend to suffer from an inferiority complex. Living in the outer reaches of the continent, they see themselves as outsiders excluded from the party. Winning ways have helped them ditch that complex.

Winning ways also bring cash into the cash-strapped federation. Star names create interest and this year’s Swedish championships attracted a record 20,000 spectators through the turnstiles. The ringing tills are music to the ears of the federation who could not afford to send a press officer to Athens, nor do they have a full-time coach on the pay-roll. But they are rubbing their hands even more with the upcoming traditional Finnkampen (Sweden versus Finland match) which follows the Games.

Since Klüft and Co had gold hung around their necks tickets have been selling out fast, 22,000 to date and rising. The record attendance for the two-day meeting (when it has been held in Sweden. Alternate years it takes place in Finland) has stood at 49,366 from more than a generation, seems sure to be broken and record profits of 5million kronor ($660,000) will swell the coffers. Gold medals, wealthy sponsors, ringing tills, the class of 76? Swedes are rubbing their eyes. Let the good times roll.

Michael Butcher for the IAAF

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