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Klüft v Barber

Heptathlete Carolina Klüft is the best thing to happen to international athletics in years. She cannot be bad for Swedish tourism either. Not only does her zany humour contradict the perceived conservative image of her compatriots, but her zest for contest and competition have taken her swiftly to the top of the heptathlon rankings.

She was world junior champion in 2003 and, in a multi-disciplinary event that usually requires a few seasons for talent to mature, she went straight into her first senior year, and won that world title as well.

Eunice Barber of France, the former world champion, lost to Klüft in Paris last summer, but found consolation in the long jump, so both walked away with a gold. Klüft has improved further this year and it is going to take Barber at her best to stop her.

Olsson v Lister

Another Swede, Christian Olsson, was looking a similar sure bet for triple jump victory until Melvin Lister jumped to the fore at the US Olympic trials last month. Better known as a long jumper – he represented the US at that event in Sydney, but did not make it to the final – Lister’s performance in the trials was reminiscent of Bob Beamon’s in the Mexico Olympics in 1968. Where Beamon improved from 27ft to 29ft (8.9 metres) in the long jump, Lister went from 55ft to 58ft (17.78 metres) in the triple. Olsson will have to pull out all the stops in Athens to beat him.

Isinbayeva v Feofanova

The rivalry between pole vaulters Yelena Isinbayeva and Svetlana Feofanova is reminiscent of that between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett in the early 1980s. Like the British middle-distance pair 25 years ago, the Russians have been swapping the pole vault world record for the past two seasons. Five of those records have come in the UK, the latest being Isinbayeva’s 4.89 metres achieved in atrocious conditions in Birmingham last month.

It is safe to predict that Athens will be a little warmer, and five metres cannot be ruled out for the “Chicks on Sticks”, as they seem happy to advertise themselves.

Kenteris v Crawford

The one event the home crowd will be primed for is the men’s 200m – the original stadion, ie ancient Olympic distance, first run in 776BC. Costas Kenteris (below left) is the latest incarnation of Coroibos, the winner 2,080 years ago. Kenteris won the 200m in Sydney, and in spite of barely competing outside Greece since, it will take a mighty effort from Shawn Crawford of the US to snatch the olive branch from him. .

Guevara v Williams

The women’s 400m is shaping up to be the contest that it should have been four years ago, when Marie-José Pérec of France fled Sydney and left the field to Cathy Freeman. Ana Guevara was looking good for gold until Tonique Williams of the Bahamas destroyed the Mexican’s three-year unbeaten record in the Rome Golden League meeting last month. A bit more fine-tuning for both and the Athens 400m could be explosive.

El Guerrouj v Lagat

For drama, there will be little to beat the men’s 1,500m. Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco could have won the event in Atlanta eight years ago, but he fell at the bell.Then he should have won it in Sydney, but failed at the death. He has put recent problems behind him but faces a strong challenge from perennial pursuer Bernard Lagat of Kenya.

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