Maria de Lurdes Mutola – also known as the “Maputo Express” – was born in one of Maputo’s toughest neighbourhoods (Chamanculo) on the 27th of October 1972.
She is an expert track and field runner who’s amazing consistency in the 1990s has made her probably the very best 800m runner in history. Her career is littered with medals and accomplishments that place her near the pinnacle of the 800m race.
As a teenager, she was a shining star at football. As Mozambican girls didn’t play much football that time, she trained and played matches with the boys and was an impressive talent. At the age of 15, Mutola was encouraged to focus her brilliant potential on athletics by Jose Craveirinha, one of Mozambique’s leading literarywas figures. His son was her coach, and he trained Mutola so hard (he was a former national long jump record holder) that she nearly gave up! However, she was convinced to stay because of the promise she showed.
After visiting Portugal, Mutola was approached by the Benfica Athletics Club, but at the last minute, the Mozambican government did their very best to retain their young star. The last Mozambican talent to play for Benfica was the late, great Eusebio da Silva Ferreira a.k.a the Black Panther. He is one of football’s greatest strikers ever, a BallonD’or winner and probably the best player to ever pull on the Portuguese national shirt. Nobody wanted another talent to leave!
In 1988, after a mere few months of training, Mutola won the silver medal at the African Championships and she took part in the 1998 Summer Olympics, but did rather poorly. She was still just 16, and better days were still to come.
Two years later, she won a gold medal at the African Championships in Cairo. She had absolutely no opposition in Mozambique, and she’d now conquered the continent. In 1991, she was granted a sports scholarship to study at the Springfield High School in Oregon, USA. That year, she came 4th in the 1991 IAAF World Championships in Tokyo, and was only robbed of a medal by falling athletes who inadvertently impeded her path. Her appeals were dismissed, but she’d set a World Junior Record.
One year later in Barcelona, she was a hot favourite to win Mozambique’s first ever Olympic Medal. She ran well but faded dismally and finished fifth to Elle van Langen, a woman nobody managed to beat that year. Except Mutola. At the IAAF World Cup, she beat Van Langen to the 800m title. She also ran her first 1,500m race that year, but only came 9th.
Over the next couple of years, the young footballer began to fulfil the promise that she’d shown as a youngster. She conquered the gold medal in the 800m race at the 1993 and 1995 IAAF World Indoor Championships and the 1993 IAAF World Championships. She won the latter title by over two seconds – the biggest margin in an international women’s 800m final. She would’ve conquered the 1995 version as well, but she was disqualified for stepping outside her lane at the semi-final stage. She also broke the world record for 1,000m – simultaneously becoming the first woman to complete it in under two and a half minutes.
She attributed a lot of her success to her coach Margo Jennings, who used to fax her the training details from Oregon to Mutola’s new home, Johannesburg! Tina Paulino, another Mozambican runner, was also coached by Margo Jennings.
By 1996, Mutola was unbeaten in the 800m race for four years, and her winning streak stretched back to over FORTY 800m and 1,000m finals. However, a flu ended her domination of the racing world, and she came third behind Svetlana Masterkova and Ana Quirot. The former would then take her 1,000m record from her.
Her appearance in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics meant that she became only the fourth track and field runner to appear in six Olympic Games.
Despite not holding a major record, Maria de Lurdes Mutola is commonly ranked as probably the best 800m female runner. Her longevity (she participated in six consecutive Olympics) and her record at major international championships are all factors that contribute to her place as one of history’s greatest athletes.
In 1997 she won a bronze medal at the IAAF World Championships, and silver two years later. She competed in the former just weeks after her father had passed away in a car accident, and she wore a black ribbon in his memory. She won the Commonwealth games twice – Mozambique was only admitted in 1995 – and the IAAF World Cup for the African team four consecutive times.
In 2000, she came home to a major roar and huge crowds celebrating her success after finally beating Stefanie Graf to her first gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. This was the pinnacle of her career. A road was even named after her in her capital city, Maputo.
She won gold in Edmonton again the following year, and in 2003 she ran a tactical race that allowed her training partner Kelly Holmes to take silver. She was unbeaten that year, and became the sole winner of the million-dollar jackpot at the Memorial van Damme in Belgium for remaining undefeated throughout the IAAF Golden League Series.
After leading for a long time, injuries ruined her race at the last moment and prevented her from being the first woman to successfully defend the Olympic 800m title in 2004. For the next 4 years, injuries blighted her amazing career (apart from a win in the 2006 World Indoor Title) and Mozambique’s “Golden Girl”, as she is affectionately known, brought the curtain down on a stellar career in 2008.
She has returned to her beloved sport (football), captaining the Mozambican national team in the 2011 Maputo Pan-African Games, and has devoted large swathes of her wealth (and the afore-mentioned jackpot) to promoting sports, health-care and education in Mozambique.
She has rebuilt the track she trained on as a little girl who liked to play football, and has been immortalized in Mozambique and the World’s sports history.