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Lurdes Mutola. Unfortunately, it seems like she passed by like a meteor that shone in the skies, was seen and idolised by all, but disappeared from the vision of those who loved her so much. A picture that fits in the small gallery of the world’s greatest athletic phenomena.
In just two hours, before an attentive audience, our Golden Girl explained what went through her soul. She did not hide her disenchantment, giving a clear notion of being gagged, of not being able to ‘pass on the rich testimony’ of a unique career in Mozambique and in the Portuguese-speaking African countries.
To quote Mia Couto:
“What struck us the most about Mutola was that she ran with athletes from developed countries, but at no point did she ask to go ahead because she came from an underdeveloped country. She fought. And she defeated the ‘coitadismo’ [‘poor me-ism’]!
From beautiful dream to hard reality
The talk was well framed and with an important element: the passion of those who lived, suffered and sacrificed themselves. Gold is not something you get served on a platter of gold.
“I was 12 years old, I went to learn to swim in the Desportivo Maputo. But because it was far from Chamanculo and it was difficult to travel, I gave up. I started playing football, because I have always had a passion for this sport. Only, at the time, there was no women’s football, so I played with the boys.
“One day, Coach Dias, who trained the players at Águia do Ouro, invited me to join. I said, how am I going to play with boys? He said, come on, let’s see what we can do. I played for a year. Then I had problems, because when I scored the tie goal against Ferroviário de Maputo. they didn’t like it and protested. My team was disqualified, and I was de-motivated.
Lynx-eyed José Craveirinha enters
“It was about that time that the poet Craveirinha saw my story in Jornal Desafio, and came to Chamanculo to talk to my parents and convince them to move me to athletics. At the time, I didn’t know what that was.
“He showed me Olympic Games videos. I began to understand. I went to train, but I didn’t last long. I remember that I trained for the first two weeks at the Parque dos Continuadores, where Cravirinha introduced me to his son, Stélio, and I never felt so much pain in my life. I gave up. But Craveirinha, who was a hero to me, came back to me and convinced me once again. I remember his words: “Girl, hold on to this, you will go far.” At the time, I did not quite understand.
Chamanculo in the heart
Emotion invades her moist eyes as Mutola returns to the neighbourhood where she was born, and which still keeps her in its heart.
“I will take you, step by step, to where I come from – from a neighbourhood considered poor, but in fact rich in many things. It is in my heart, it symbolises what I am, because Chamanculo represents Mozambique, so I took it to the world and to the podium. So, for me, Chamanculo is important.
“It all started in 1988, with the trip to Botswana for the Zone VI Games. Thank God, I won the gold medal in the 800 metres. When I came back, I had other ideas. I said, I have to get to the Olympics now. But how, if I do not have the minimums?”
Stélio, the first coach, takes action
“I began to train seriously, and I remember Stélio pushing me. I trained twice as hard – did secret training in the Parque dos Continadores and in the neighbourhood, with my friends. We ran to Toyota, turned at Fajardo and back to Chamanculo. All this took me to a place I never expected to see: I ended up getting a place to Seoul. I still have the badge today.
Medals: It’s sad that only gold glitters
A new chapter, related to something scattered across Mutola’s life: the medals.
“It’s sad that, in competitive sport, people only remember gold medals, and rarely second or third places. The silver and bronze medals are forgotten, even here. I got bronze at the Atlanta Games, even though I was sick. I went through the first round, the second and got to the finals, and then I got the flu, but I still got the bronze medal. The country forgot. My coach had already told me: ‘Lurdes, you can win ten world championships, but if you do not win a gold medal at the Olympics, you will be out.’
The hard fight for Olympic gold, finally achieved in Sydney …
“In 2000, I had to pack up and move to Australia, six months before the games. I went to Europe to compete, but I came back because my coach said: ‘If you fail these [Olympic] games, it’s like you’ve never won anything’. I had to devote myself seriously to training and sacrifice certain things in my private life, like sleeping late. I had to feed myself properly, getting a massage twice a week. Sometimes I trained three times a day. I only rested on Sundays. On Monday, I would do 40 minutes long distance in the morning and gym in the afternoon, because, without gym, no athlete has strength. At the end of the afternoon, I was out on the track. It was not easy, but I wanted to get where many people thought it impossible for me to get. I got there.
Parque dos Continuadores: Failed project
“It is often said that you can’t turn back time. I had a project in the Parque dos Continuadores. Nike had made available US$660. 000 to rehabilitate it: it would build a 50-metre swimming pool there, a building for the Athletics Federation, a gymnasium. But it was not possible. I do not want to point the finger at anyone because I really don’t know what happened. I only know that I had the money available, but it was not mine. The presentation of the project was made, obstacles appeared and I ended up telling Nike that everything had collapsed.
“I was always asked about the process, but because it would have been a sad thing to take someone’s money and not use it, I lost heart and stayed out of the country for a few years, coaching Caster Semenya in South Africa. I had the courage to go back to support athletics. I took the money I earned and invested it in the sport. I talked to some [sports] officials and bought a house in South Africa to serve as a high performance centre. There were some athletes, but it was not easy, because the individual modality is also collective. Sometimes we forget that. I can be an athlete in an individual modality, but if I do not have a team, it does not work.”
Defeat the ‘coitadismo’
Lurdes Mutola: always herself, on or off the track. A profusion of triumphs. World Champion in Germany; gold in the African Championships of Cairo; World Indoor Championships in Toronto and Lisbon, a US$1 million award for Most Scored Athlete.
Lurdes came under intense pressure to change her nationality. The advantages, not only monetary, would be many. The Americans had a hard time ‘swallowing the pill’, the banana peels were numerous, her an athlete coming from the Third World.
The state of Oregon, where she lived, capitalised on her winning spirit, her capacity for self-sacrifice and her example as a winner without ever resorting to banned substances. South Africa, where our champion came to reside, the same. It is only we who have benefited little from her experience.
By Renato CaldeiraSource: O País