Return of the Maputo Express

On a beautiful evening on a warm summer night in Athens, Mutola lost a close 800m race to her former training partner Kelly Holmes. Mutola had been the favourite to become the first athlete to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 800m after he victory in Sydney. But all her dreams were quashed when she was beaten in the final sprint. There has been concern, in some quarters, that Mutola would not get the gold in Athens. Respected athletics correspondent John Mahaffey, one of the authorities in the sport, sent the alarm bells ringing. “She is her country’s first Olympic gold medallist, the first athlete to record four consecutive World Cup victories and the first person to win the million-dollar Golden League jackpot,” he wrote in the countdown to the final of the Athens Olympics. “On Monday Mutola has a chance to make more history by becoming the first woman to retain the Olympic 800 metres title, a goal that would have seemed a formality at the start of the season. “Suddenly, though, Mutola looks vulnerable. She has lost more than two weeks’ training this year through a hamstring injury and her 36-race winning streak was abruptly ended in Lausanne.” Mahaffey believed that Mutola was coming to the end of her impressive career. “Win or lose on Monday, Mutola must be coming to the end of her career at the age of 31.” Mutola was indeed vulnerable in Athens. Had Mutola come to the end of the road? Well, her critics would have suggested as much and for the last two years they feasted on that. But on Sunday the Maputo Express hit back in sensational style. Mutola won the 800m at the World Indoor Championships in Moscow last week ‘ her seventh title in a great career that has made Mozambique very proud. Now 33, Mutola won in a time of one minute 58.9 seconds while Jamaica’s Kenia Sinclair snatched silver and Morocco’s Hasna Benhassi took bronze. Mutola’s victory came with her season’s best run and suggestions that she might be over the hill are being revised. “My seventh title is something special,” Mutola, who first triumphed in Toronto in 1993, told reporters. “But it was tough.” Mutola went straight to the front from the start and never lost her leadership. “This is something special, But it was tough, definitely not the way I wanted it to be. It was too risky to come from behind so I went into the lead from the start.” She believes this triumph could breathe life into her career at this twilight stage. “Now I am full of new motivation for my career,” said an ecstatic Mutola. Her triumph in Moscow ensured that she left a mark in world indoor history. For no other athlete in the history of the championships has won more than five titles. Surely athletics will never forget Maria Mutola. Pat Butcher, of the International Athletic Associations Federation, believes Mutola is a special ambassador of athletics. “The distance from Maputo to Madrid is roughly 8000 kilometres,” wrote Butcher, just before the last world indoor championships in the Spanish city of Madrid. “But that journey is nothing compared to the odyssey which has taken Maria Mutola from the dusty soccer pitches of the Mozambican capital to the Estadio de la Comunidad in the Spanish capital for this weekend’s 9th IAAF World Cup in Athletics. “It is testament to her precocity and longevity that Mutola’s first World Cup win came when she was 19. “Maria de Lurdes Mutola was born in the shanty town of Chamanculo on October 27, 1972. “The youngest of six children, she was also one of the sturdiest, such that when she played football, she played with the boys. “Thanks to an intriguing blur of Third World cultural boundaries, her potential was recognised by Mozambican poet, Jos’ Craveirinha, whose son was an athletics coach. “Within four months of starting to train, the 15 year old Mutola went to the Olympic Games in Seoul 1988, where she finished seventh in her heat of the 800 metres. “With few resources in a country still in the grip of a post-colonial war, in 1991 Mutola accepted an athletics scholarship to the USA under the Olympic Solidarity Programme for developing countries. “From the baked earth tracks of Maputo, Mutola flew halfway around the world, to the verdant fields of Eugene, Oregon. “Nothing has ever been the same for her.” Mutola spoke Portuguese and was now in a country that spoke English. “It was a real change,” she said. “I didn’t speak English at all. It wasn’t easy, in fact it was very, very different. It took me a while to adapt, close to a year. It was overpowering to be in such a strange place”. Mutola speaks pretty good English nowadays, with an inevitable American slant, and the only overpowering that gets done is by her to her opponents. In Sydney, four years ago, came her greatest triumph when she won gold in the 800m. “It was incredible. It’s not every day that a country like Mozambique wins an Olympic gold medal,” she said. “There are only 16 million people in the whole country, and it felt that they were all there to welcome me home. “There must have been hundreds of thousands of people. We couldn’t move”. Mutola has since left the American city of Eugene, her home for more than a decade, because its climate was causing her some health problems. She now lives in the wealthy suburb of Sandton in South Africa ‘ just an hour’s flight to her hometown in Maputo. Last week, still celebrating her triumph in Moscow, she flew back to Australia for the Commonwealth Games ‘ another chapter of her service to her beloved Mozambique. It was in Australia, four years ago, when she powered to her greatest triumph. And she believes she now has the urge to do very well. “I used to think that maybe Sydney in 2000 would be my last Olympic Games, but as long as I stay injury-free, and listen to my body, then maybe I will keep doing well.” Mutola has won virtually everything there is to win in athletics and will always be remembered as one of the greatest athletes of all-time. No matter what happens at the Commonwealth Games, Mutola has already made a huge mark on a sporting discipline that until here emergence, was only familiar with middle distance African track queens from Kenya and Ethiopia.

March 2006
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