BEIJING -- The Olympic gold medal in Carolina Kluft's event was about to be decided on Friday night, and Kluft was already on her way out of the Bird's Nest stadium: adjusting her blue-and-gold warm-up suit, strapping on her backpack and heading toward a tunnel.
It was a muted moment for one of the biggest stars in track and field, but Kluft is no longer starring in the event that made her a household name in her native Sweden.
In February, after dominating the heptathlon since 2002, Kluft rocked her world by announcing that she would no longer compete in the event in which she had won three consecutive world outdoor titles and the 2004 Olympic title.
She was tired of the physical demands of preparing for the heptathlon's seven diverse disciplines, tired of the pressure and eager for a change. And so, in an extraordinary move for an Olympic athlete in an Olympic year, she downsized her ambitions: choosing to compete only in the long jump and the triple jump.
"She thought she had done everything she could in heptathlon," said Thomas Engdahl, coach of the Swedish Olympic team. "It's a very unusual decision to take, but she's a very unusual girl. For her, athletics are for fun. She wants to do it for fun and when heptathlon wasn't so fun anymore, that was it."
The result is Kluft, in her physical prime at age 25, has gone from a near-certain gold medalist to an underdog: the rough Swedish equivalent of Michael Jordan's decision to leave the NBA behind for the new challenge of minor-league baseball.
The results in Beijing were unsurprisingly unremarkable. A novice in the triple jump, Kluft failed to qualify for the final here. Though she is much more experienced in the long jump, considered her best event when she was a heptathlete, she failed to qualify on Friday for the decisive phase of the long-jump final.
After the first three rounds, she was ninth with a best effort of 6.49 meters. Only the top eight are permitted to complete the final three jumps. And when the gold medal eventually went to Maurren Higa Maggi of Brazil, the silver to Tatiana Lebedeva of Russia and the bronze to Blessing Okagbare of Nigeria, Kluft was in the mixed zone, far from the roars of the crowd and the Brazilian delegation's celebration, insisting that she had no regrets about quitting the heptathlon.
"I have nothing to regret because I was so empty," she said. "I didn't have any more energy to give. It was quit or do something else in track and field."
The problem for Sweden, which has yet to win a track and field medal here or a gold medal in any sport, is that another Kluft victory in the heptathlon would have come in handy in Beijing.
"It's true," Engdahl said. "A lot of people wonder why I don't try to convince her to do heptathlon again, but she's not someone you can just tell something like that. She's a very strong-minded person."
Kluft said another gold medal was not her motivation. "I know what it feels like, and it's very nice of course," she said. "But I've never had that kind of goal. For me the motivation and inspiration comes from the inside and not from the outside and the medals. I'm very happy and proud about what I've been doing over the years, but now I'm happy to move on and have new challenges. And today I've had a new experience."
So did Maggi, the 32-year-old Brazilian who surprised herself by winning her first major title when her opening jump of 7.04 meters ended up being the best of the night, if only by one centimeter. Lebedeva, the flamboyant 2004 Olympic champion in the long jump, fouled on four jumps in a row before finally unleashing a fair effort on her sixth and final attempt, touching the smooth surface of the sand at 7.03 meters.
"This was my last chance, and thank God it happened," said Maggi, who missed the last Olympics in 2004 because she was suspended for two years for testing positive for a steroid, a result she attributed to her use of a hair-removal product.
"It was just an accident, a historical accident," said Maggi, the latest in a lengthening line of working mothers to win at these Olympics. "But it was something I had to overcome for myself and my daughter, and now I can be a clean example for my country, for Brazil, and for Brazilian track and field."
It was a night for tears of joy and second chances in the long jump. Okagbare finished 13th in qualifying, failing to make the 12-woman final. But that was before Lyudmila Blonska of Ukraine was forced to withdraw from the final and was later banned from the Games after testing positive for a steroid.
Okagbare, 19, said she received a call in the Olympic village from a Nigerian official on Thursday night informing her that she would jump in the final. But she believed it only after she had gone on the Internet and read the news herself.
"It's never happened to me before, going out and coming in," she said. "When it happened, I knew I had to do something, get a personal best or a medal."
She would get both with a jump of 6.91 meters.
As for Lebedeva, also the mother of a young daughter, her latest medal was Olympic business as usual. And if Kluft is looking for a role model to help her succeed in her transition to a less hectic life, perhaps its best to study the Russian's technique (if not necessarily the striped hairstyle she is sporting in Beijing).
Lebedeva won the gold in the long jump and the bronze in the triple jump in Athens in 2004, and she was a double medalist in these Olympics, too, finishing second in both events.
At least Kluft knows she has time to improve her results. Lebedeva, like Maggi, recently turned 32. "I really think," Engdahl said, "that Carolina will be a medalist in the long jump one day."
Karolina Klüft lands during one her tries in the finals of the long jump at the 2008 Olympics.
Bildbyrån photo/Joel Marklund