News07 Mar 2004

Sjoberg's heir pays tribute to Nousiainen


Stefan Holm of Sweden celebrates winning the men's High Jump (© Getty Images)

Stefan Holm can probably tell you exactly how many landings he has made since he first practised high jumping in the garden of his home in Forshaga aged eight, right through to the one at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Budapest last night which brought him a third successive world title with a height of 2.35 metres.

The 27-year-old Swede is a compulsive statistician, and indulges this passion by maintaining a website which covers every detail of his career. Not just the record of more than 100 contests against national rival Staffan Strand, but of every football match he played in, each goal scored, every hockey game. He is an avid follower of Farjestad, his local ice hockey team.

"I started football when I was eight. I scored 58 goals in 120 matches," he said, precise as any athletics statistical anorak. Eight was also the age at which he first watched Sweden's former world high jump record-holder, Patrick Sjoberg.

"I practised jumping with two friends, on the grass, after watching him on TV. We used an old matress, off an ordinary bed, to land on."

His father, Johnny recalls it: "He used to say: 'Look! I'm Patrick Sjoberg!' He was Stefan's inspiration."

Years later, his technique modelled on that of his white-maned compatriot, Holm has come of age, a multiple champion like his hero.

Holm senior tells how he went to Sjoberg's coach, Viljo Nousiainen, when it became apparent that his son had some talent for the event. "Viljo coached Stefan, and taught me how to coach. That's why he jumps just like Sjoberg. He taught me everything. But he is dead now. He died in 1998."

Of course this script could read as the Olsson story too, as Nousiainen was also the coaching inspiration for the reigning World indoor and outdoor Triple Jump champion too.

In an emotional moment deep beneath the Sportsarena in Budapest, amid a crowd of Swedish journalists, Stefan gave thanks. He named his mother and father, psychological mentor Christian Augustson, and Nousiainen. "He's not among us any more, but I still thank him."

Holm stopped playing football when he was 15. "I won the Swedish youth title that year, and concentrated on high jumping."

Johnny Holm played in goal for a fourth divsion side, Oestra Deje, but his biggest sporting impact has been to nurture his son. He was coaching him in the arena in Budapest, but admits that with five flawless first-time clearances he had little to do.

If Carolina Kluft contradicts the reputation that Swedes have for lacking charisma or personality, then so does Holm.

He takes pleasure in poking fun at himself. He will tell you, for example how he tried the decathlon as a 16-year-old, and high jumped 2.04. "Yes, it's true that was four centimetres higher than I pole-vaulted," he says.

He has never vaulted since.

Holm is a national hero, and not merely because of his athletics exploits. He is the darling of elderly Swedish matrons after his success, along with a newscaster, in a national televised quiz show: On the Track. Yet it has nothing to do with athletics. It is a quiz covering the usual range of general knowledge topics: music, geography, culture, and only a little sport. The "track" is a railway track. Contestants are filmed as if in a railway carriage, and stop off to answer questions.

Holm, apparently was the strongest link in the partnership.
Yet not everyone knows him apparently. Forshaga is a small town of perhaps 2000 inhabitants. Its most famous resident is Swedish ice hockey legend Nils Nilson, who twice won the World Cup with Sweden and was the country's leading goal-scorer. When the pair met at a reception for Holm, Nilsen, in his 70s,  had never heard of Stefan! Holm, however, apparently about every goal Nilsen had scored!

At 1.81m tall, Holm is the smallest man to win a global high jump title, and says he has never wished he was taller. "If I'd been taller, my technique might not have been as a good. I might never have jumped as high as I have."

His goal now is the Olympics. As the little big man says, "I've had eight indoor competitions and won all of them. I hope I can say the same thing after the outdoor season."

That would be the best statistic of all for his archive.