By - Victor Kekereekun
Referred to as the ‘Maputo Express’ in the world of sports, former World and Olympic champion Maria Mutola is regarded as the greatest female 800m athlete in the history of the event. Maria was the dominant force in the 800m for over a decade from 1993 until 2006, before her retirement in 2008 after Beijing Olympics.
Born in Chamanculo district of Maputo, Mozambique, on October 27, 1972, Maria’s first love was football. However, a chance meeting with José Craveirinha, one of Mozambique’s leading poets and literary figures led the teenage Maria to switch to athletics. At the age of 14, with only a few months of training, she won a silver medal in 800m at the 1988 African Championship in Annaba, Algeria.
1993 was the year Maputo Express began her world dominance when she won gold at both the IAAF World Championships in Stuttgart and IAAF World Indoor Championships in Toronto. She went on to win both championships combined 10 times.
Hot favorite for the gold at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, after going undefeated from 1992, she could only settle for bronze due to flu. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Maria Mutola finally won the gold medal in the 800m. In 2003, she bagged the one million dollar jackpot for going undefeated during the IAAF Golden League series that year.
Watch: Maria Mutola at the 800m Final World Championships in Stuggart in 1993
Mutola’s catalogue of gold medals include: an Olympic, 3 IAAF World Championships, 7 IAAF World Indoor Championships, 2 Commonwealth Games, 3 All-Africa Games, and 5 African Championships, apart from the several IAAF Golden League series and other races.
Maria Mutola competed at 6 Olympic Games and is the fourth track & field athlete to do so. At the 2008 Olympics, Maria led the pack until the last few metres when she was overtaken by three competitors, among whom was training partner, Kelly Holmes of Britain who won the gold.
She became the first sole winner of the one million dollar IAAF Golden League jackpot in 2003, and the highest earning female athlete in history. Her earnings from IAAF events alone that year totaled $1,190,000.
Maria Mutola holds the record as the most successful athlete in the 31-year history of the IAAF World Indoor Championships.
After calling it quits with the tracks in 2008, Mutola returned to her first love, football and played for Mamelodi Sundowns FC in the South African women league. She even captained the Mozambique female national team to the 2011 All-Africa Games in Maputo.
Maria Mutola was a dedicated footballer long before she won Olympic gold in 2000, playing alongside boys in the shanties of the Mozambican capital Maputo before going on to become a world champion athlete.
After a glittering career devastating 800m fields across the world, in the process becoming the southern African country’s only ever Olympic medal winner, she went back for her first love – but not in Mozambique, the land that spawned the likes of Eusébio and Mario Coluna.
In her adopted home in Johannesburg she played in South Africa’s top women’s league and, at the age of 37, is on the brink of helping Luso Africa win their region and qualifying for the national play-offs.
“I wasn’t looking to play football. I brought a friend here to South Africa from Mozambique to look for a football team. And I ended up playing,” she recounted the process of falling in love with football.
Mutola, a veteran of six Olympics who first represented Mozambique when she was 15 and finally became Olympic champion in 2000, has become a mentor for South African runner Caster Semenya.
Semenya, the 800-meter world champion who has been sidelined in a long-running investigation of her gender by the IAAF, is now training under the tutulage Mutola.
Semenya, who had previously trained with Michael Seme, decided to make the coaching switch after meeting the three-time World champion. One can easily understand why the South African jinxed her former coach for Maria Mutola. Training with a world-conquering talent like Mutola offers her room for improvement.
“At the time I was in Mozambique and she phoned me and said, ‘This is Caster.’ I was very surprised,” Mutola said.
“She phoned me for advice and I started chatting to her. It was when all the drama happened and she called up for my support. I had only just seen Caster for the first time on TV when she won gold at the world championships (in Berlin in 2009).”
Also, Maria Mutola has contributed to humanity in many ways. She established the Lurdes Mutola Foundation in 2001 in Maputo with the aim to “Help, Support and Build Mozambique.” In recognition of her outstanding achievements, Maria was appointed an honorary UN Youth Ambassador in 2003. She has cited the importance of raising awareness of HIV/AIDS issues among young people in Africa, as well as highlighting the benefits that sports can bring to them.
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