Maria de Lurdes Mutola, 41, from Mozambique specialised in the 800 metres and brooked little or no opposition over that trip. She was born in Maputo and nicknamed “The Maputo Express”. She is the fourth track and field athlete to represent her country in six Olympic Games.
A three-time 800 metres World champion and Olympic gold winner in 2000, Maria spoke about her career, doping, her ambitions, etc. in an exclusive interview with the New Indian Express. “We do need better ways of dealing with doping,” she said.
How did you get into athletics?
Football is my first sporting love and the game that actually helped me get noticed! Well-known Mozambican poet and Coach Jose Craveirinha noticed me while I was sprinting on a football field. I therefore went into athletics accidentally.
He believed I could become a good runner, talked my parents into grooming me as an athlete, helped me train, and secure a scholarship to go to the USA. Before getting into athletics, I was a swimmer and played football.
What was your aim initially?
I loved sports as a child and wanted to play games often. I was into swimming until the age of six, took up football after that, and switched tracks to enter the world of athletics afterward so I did not have clear ambitions or aims. But after I participated in my first Olympics in Seoul in 1988, I realised that I needed to coach and train if I did that I could achieve something in this field.
Have you achieved all that you set out to?
I am 41-years-old now and look back at my achievements with a lot of pride and a thankful heart. Finishing athletics without an Olympic gold would have probably disappointed me.
I ran for almost 20 years, reaching the top of the athletics world through six Olympic Games, 10 world titles, and numerous other records. I was the first athlete from Mozambique to win any World Championship or Olympic medal (silver in 1992 and gold in 2000). I would say that I’ve achieved all that I set out to do as a 15-year-old!
Which is the highest point of your career?
I cracked gold during my fourth attempt in the Olympic Games. It was at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. I think that was the highest point in my career.
I do not have any regrets, but the one thing that comes close to being one is that I could not break the world record for 800m.
I am fortunate to have had a long and successful career and will always remain thankful and a proud Mozambican.
Who was your main opponent at big events?
For somebody who has enjoyed a career spanning 20 years there would be many with whom I’ve competed! Runners such as Stephanie Graf and Kelly Holmes were major competitors during my time. Stephanie especially because like me she is a good finisher too and I distinctly remember this one episode in 2001 when she and I were very close, so close that I had to really lean forward to touch the finishing tape before she did!
Your views of doping?
Even though it’s a topic that is in focus off and on, I prefer not to think about it. It is shameful for the sport and I believe athletes should be kept motivated believing they can do well without it. Cases like Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong are disappointing.
You think the present system is enough or do more need to be done?
The current anti-doping mechanisms are not great, but it is important to have something than having nothing at all. Doping and detection are the two elements of a vicious cycle, every time the detection methods improve, dopers and cheaters find newer ways of doing it without getting caught, it is almost like a ‘cat and mouse game’!
As a coach, what is your coaching philosophy?
Like I said, I believe inspiration and motivation is critical. Athletes need to believe in themselves and set their goals. Jose Craveirinha, who said I could be in the Olympics and a world champion, inspired me. That stuck to me and I went on to achieve what I did. I do the same with those I train today.
What is your ambition as a coach?
As a coach, my ambitions are always a function of the ambitions my students have. I currently coach Caster Semenya. Her goal is to win gold in the Olympics and mine is to guide her.