Mutloa grabs 800m
In what proved to be the most exciting race of the evening -- especially given the one-sided natures of the Freeman and Johnson triumphs -- Maria Mutola of Mozambique ran a superbly tactical 800m to claim gold ahead of joint favourite Stephanie Graf of Austria. Kelly Holmes, who made a brave bid before fading away at the finish, came in third.
After running the first lap almost dead even, Holmes made her move halfway through the final lap, racing into the lead and setting a cracking pace, obviously in hopes of burning away the competition.
Mutola ran a patient race, not getting pressurised by Holmes' break, holding her place and making her move just ahead of the final turn, to surge into a sprint. Graf, perched just behind Mutola's shoulder, took off behind Mutola and down the final straight, the two favourites eased past the rapidly tiring Holmes to do a one-two at the tape. Mutola did the distance in 1.56.16.
For Mutola, it comes as the culmination of a dream. The 28-year-old resident of Eugene, Oregon, in the USA is an icon in her own homeland. And like all great champions, she comes with a story attached -- one that has merely fuelled the legend.
Mutola was 14 when, as the only girl in the local soccer team, she scored the winning goal in a championship game in the local league. The losing team protested, the protest was upheld on the grounds that girls couldn't play soccer with the boys, and Mutola's team lost its prize.
A native, whose son was a track coach, suggested she try running. A year later, she was running -- in the Seoul Olympics of 1988.
At the age of 15.
An organisation that pays for talented third-world athletes to live and train in other countries picked her up, and sent her to Eugene where she arrived in March 1991. Two months later, she had broken her country's 1500 metre national record at an invitational meet. The facilities and training she was getting in her new residence was already beginning to show results.
She ran the 800 in Barcelona, but came in a poor 5th. But less than two months later, Mutola embarked on a streak that saw her, over the next three years, win every race she entered in.
Her 42-race streak, including a world championship, ended when Mutola was disqualified in the semifinals of the 1995 Worlds for cutting her lane. And as with the winning streak, so with losing -- the disqualification triggered a wave of bad results that included bronze in both the Atlanta Olympics and 1997 Worlds. In 1999, she took Silver in the Worlds, an improvement but still below her own high standards.
This year, she has focussed on training for the big one, making no secret that in her fourth Olympics she would settle for nothing less than gold.
She has it -- and the riches that inevitably come with athletic success. Not that the money matters -- Mutola in fact donates a good part of her winnings towards a fund aimed at developing a training programme in Mozambique, as also to programmes in America aimed to benefit the homeless.
Mail your comments