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Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2007, 11:32 GMT
What can Sweden teach GB?

By Joe Wilson
BBC Sport 24

Carolina Kluft
Kluft is the reigning Olympic, world and European heptathlon champion
There are warnings Britain may not win a single athletics gold at London 2012.

So what can the UK (population 60 million) learn from Sweden (population nine million), the Scandinavian country which is transforming itself into one of the world's best athletics nations?

Sweden has a realistic chance of seven athletics golds at next year's Beijing Olympics, though national team captain Thomas Engdahl says he'll "settle for three or four".

Right now Britain would probably settle for a decent shot at a chipped old Olympic bronze.

Engdahl's job is to make sure Sweden's elite athletes have the best possible training preparation and he will be running a camp in Japan for the World Championships in Osaka later this year.

"But if 10% of the athletes decided they don't want to come and would rather prepare by staying at home, then that's fine," he explained.

This trust is fundamental to the Swedish success story.

Then again, they have no choice. They can't afford to do anything else.

"In 1996 we were bankrupt. Because there was no money we had to stop fighting amongst ourselves, instead we started to try to make Sweden the best in Europe, the best in the world."

We have three million people in Sweden who regularly exercise, and 600,000 volunteers

Yngve Andersson
Swedish Athletics Association
Bankruptcy was the direct result of hosting the World Championships in Gothenburg in 1995, a "disaster" financially and in terms of results - Sweden didn't win a medal.

But the championships left a blank canvas for the future and inspired a few notable youngsters. Famously, the current Olympic triple jump champion Christian Olsson was selling programmes in the stadium and caught a glimpse of a certain Jonathan Edwards. He was transfixed.

So with new interest but no cash, the Swedish athletics authorities began a process of engagement. This coincided with a government-sponsored initiative to build new indoor facilities.

On a freezing Monday evening I visited the Satra athletics hall about 10km outside Stockholm.

The wooden beams of this huge hangar still smell fresh five years after being built. No-one has vandalised it, it stays open in the snow and it is full. There are at least 300 participants, all apparently under 16, and a host of coaches.

In one corner, a 16-year-old girl is whirling around with the hammer, watched proudly by a huge man with a grey moustache. He turns out to be former national champion Bjorn Holmstrom.

Holmstrom is not being paid to be here, none of the coaches are. The Swedish athletics transformation has been shaped by amateur enthusiasm.

Christian Olsson and Nathan Douglas
Swedish stars like Christian Olsson have left Britain's best behind
President of the Swedish Athletics Association Yngve Andersson - a former banker - gives me the figures.

"We have three million people in Sweden who regularly exercise, and 600,000 volunteers," said Andersson. This, remember, from a population of just nine million.

When it comes to the association's once empty account, Andersson proudly informs me "there is now 500,000".

To put it into some context, the budget for British athletics is generally reported to be around 20m.

Swedish athletics is run on peanuts, it essentially can't afford to employ its own coaches even if it wanted to. Instead it trusts the clubs and volunteers to fill the facilities.

Andersson reckons that there are now "25 to 30" indoor athletics arenas similar to the one I visited in Stockholm.

606: DEBATE
Bod

The capital city desperately needs another he tells me. They're having to turn children away, but the policy has been to spread them around the country.

So on to Vaxjo, a town of around 75,000 with another 15,000 or so in the university campus. It has indoor and outdoor ice hockey arenas, a football pitch, an indoor curling hall, and a huge red barn which contains a full-size artificial football pitch, a running track and Carolina Kluft.

I watch as Kluft does laps with the women's football team and a pot-bellied jogger. Remember this is the greatest female athlete in the world.

Her advice for British athletics boils down to one simple thing: trust the athletes. Expect success but don't apply too much pressure.

As we get nearer to 2012 that might be harder and harder to adhere to in Britain.

But my brief encounter with the set-up in Sweden leads me to conclude that limitless millions of lottery funding will never replace or create the joy of athletics. And there is no point building facilities unless you can engender the enthusiasm to fill them.

606 DEBATE: What can British athletics learn from Sweden?



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