The Maputo Express
Maria Mutola took her bow in international athletics at the age of just 15, and remained at the top for over two decades, competing at six editions of the Games, and winning Mozambique’s first ever Olympic gold, in the 800m at Sydney 2000.
“Where you come from doesn’t matter at all. Whether you’re from a rich region or family or a poor one, you can still achieve your goals at school or in sport if you concentrate enough and dedicate yourself to them completely,” says Maria de Lurdes Mutola, summarising the secret to her sporting success. Born in a shanty town in Chamanculo, a suburb of Maputo, on 27 October 1972, Mutola showed great promise at football from an early age, but switched to athletics at 14 upon the advice of renowned writer and poet José Craveirinha, who spotted her huge potential as a middle-distance runner. Following several months of training, she won a silver medal in the 800m at the African Championships, a result which saw her selected for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, where, aged just 15. Though she did not advance past the first round it was an experience that set her in good stead for the future.
After being crowned African 800m champion in 1990, Mutola took advantage of the IOC’s Solidarity Programme to travel to the United States to study and train, basing herself at Springfield High School in Oregon. During the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, she finished fourth in the final, beating the world junior record in the process. At the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, she reached the final of both the 800m and 1500m events.
Period of domination
From 1993 onwards, Mutola began to exert her dominance in the 800 metres, claiming three world outdoor titles (in 1993, 2001 and 2003) and seven indoor (in 1993, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2006). Mozambique’s flag bearer and the 800m favourite at Atlanta 1996, she contracted influenza prior to the final and did well to finish third, but on 25 September 2000 in Sydney, she became her country’s first ever Olympic champion. After the Games, the welcome she received back in Maputo was worthy of a head of state, with a red carpet laid on for her at the airport and thousands of ecstatic fans cheering her name during a parade through the capital city, which now boasts a street named after the gold medallist.
Return to football
Despite suffering from an injury in Athens in 2004, she still managed to finish fourth in her favoured event. At her last Games in 2008, Mutola reached the final again, securing fifth-place. Following her retirement from the track at the age of 36, she returned to one of her first loves, football, and even went on to captain the Mozambique national team for a spell. She also demonstrated a talent for coaching, guiding South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya to a silver medal in the 800m at London 2012.