Hubert Lawrence, Gleaner Writer
Ten years ago, an effervescent Swede won the hearts of Jamaicans at the World Junior Championships in Kingston. Carolina Kluft bubbled with energy and emotion as she ran, jumped and threw her way to a world junior heptathlon record. When the deed was done, she ran her victory lap waving her national flag and ours.
The tall blonde Swede went on to a brilliant career, winning Olympic, World and European titles. She and triple jumper Christian Olson gave Sweden pride of place in track and field. Weeks after the London Olympics, she retired from the sport at 29. Wear and tear on her body had ushered her out of the heptathlon, but she had fought those difficulties in her new main event, the long jump.
In fact, in Daegu at the World Championships, just a year ago, she was a finalist.
Kluft's injury hastened departure signals that the end of an era has begun.
Alongside her in Kingston was a group so formidable that many have gone on to stardom. Croatian high-jump diva Blanka Vlasic, United States (US) sprinter Lauryn Williams, Ethiopian distance darlings Meseret Defar and Tirunesh Dibaba, 1-2 in the 5000; intermediate hurdlers Louis Van Zyl, Lashinda Demus, Zuzana Hejnova and Bershawn 'Batman' Jackson were here too. Just under the radar were Sanya Richards-Ross and Allyson Felix.
KINGSTON 2002 STARS SAYING GOODBYE
Aside from Usain Bolt, Kluft was probably the most popular athlete there. Now, a decade later, she is the first of the big stars emerging from Kingston 2002 to depart the sport.
Energised by capacity crowds, Jamaica won a record 11 medals. Bolt won the only individual gold, weeks short of his 16th birthday. Simone Facey, Anniesha McLaughlin and Melaine Walker took silver in the 100, 200 and 400 hurdles, respectively. Jermaine Gonzales, Sheryl Morgan and Camille Robinson finished third in their respective events.
The pick of the three relays where Jamaica won medals was the women's 4x100. Sherone Simpson, Kerron Stewart, McLaughlin and Facey beat the USA to win. Bolt, Facey and McLaughlin are about the same age and though they've had different levels of success as senior athletes, they all could have bright days ahead.
The same applies to Walker, who like Kluft is 29. Simpson, Stewart and Gonzales, who have all had terrible luck with injuries, are 28.
I rather imagine that Veronica Campbell-Brown (VCB) will stick around until 2016 for one last shot at the Olympic gold medal in the women's 100 metres.
Good soldiers like VCB, Aleen Bailey and Maurice Smith left the junior ranks before 2002. None of them should retire now, not with the 2013 World Championships around the corner.
Merlene Ottey and Danny McFarlane might well be their role models. The evergreen one was a world-class sprinter well into her forties and Danny wasn't far from the 2012 Olympic team, at 40, in the 400-metre hurdles.
WAVE OF RETIREMENTS
At a glance, the Kluft retirement has nothing to do with us. It is, in fact, a warning that our own wave of retirements is coming.
Some will seem premature. Others will go at the perfect time. If Bolt and Yohan Blake leave after the 2016 Rio Olympics, that could be just right for the tall man, but too soon for Blake. All things being equal, Bolt will be a 30 year-old four-time Olympian, while Blake will be 26 and Rio could be his second Olympics. Only time will tell.
Already, we've had to say goodbye to brilliant 100-metre hurdler Brigitte Foster-Hylton. Jamaican athletics won't feel the same without her. As with Kluft, the retirement of the former World, Pan Am and Commonwealth champion is the start of the end of an era.
Recently, McFarlane and 2002 Commonwealth decathlon winner Claston Bernard came to the end of fine careers and it seems that star 110-metre hurdler, Maurice 'Mister Smooth' Wignall, has quietly moved off as well.
Brigitte and Maurice probably deserve national honours. Both were Commonwealth champions in 2006 and two-time Olympic finalists. They helped to illuminate Jamaica's Golden Era and set an example that the young ones can follow. They will be missed.
Hubert Lawrence has covered athletics since 1987.