'Money hasn't changed me'

Having earned more than $1-million in prize money last year, Maria Mutola could buy herself almost any piece of jewellery she wanted — except the one she desires most: another Olympic 800m gold medal. “The money last year was nice and kind of unexpected,” she said. “But my biggest dream remains to do well in the Olympic Games.”

She is only 31, but in Athens Mutola will be competing in her fifth Olympics.
She finished seventh in her heat of the 800m in Seoul in 1988, when she was only 15 and running her first race outside Africa. Widely tipped to win in Barcelona four years later, she finished fifth. In Atlanta in 1996, having been beaten once in four years, she had to settle for bronze. She finally struck gold in Sydney four years later.

A win in Athens would make Mutola the first athlete since New Zealand’s Peter Snell in 1964 to retain an 800m title. “Ever since the last Olympics we have looked forward to this year’s Olympics, and nothing in between has changed that,” said Mutola’s coach, Margo Jennings. “The Olympics are magical. There is nothing like it.”

Last year Mutola became the first athlete to win the $1-million Golden League jackpot for remaining unbeaten throughout the elite series of six meetings. She also earned prize money and appearance and sponsors’ fees. “I don’t think the money has changed me, and it was important that it didn’t change me,” she said. Perhaps the most surprising thing it changed is how Mutola is viewed within her sport. After adding the world title in Paris to her Golden League jackpot, she received one of the highest accolades in the sport when the United States magazine Track & Field News made her its female athlete of the year. “Those are the kind of feats that need to be recognised,” said Jennings. “Her consistency and all the years being number one didn’t get her the notoriety the money did. She is finally getting the respect she has worked so hard for.”

When Mutola returned home to Mozambique from Sydney, she was given a red-carpet reception at the packed airport. She could hardly hide her tears as she walked past traditional dance groups tirelessly shouting her name and giving her messages of praise and encouragement. In response she said: “I dedicate this gold medal to all Mozambicans, because it is the first Olympic gold medal for our country.”

A street in Maputo and the school where she completed her primary education in Chamanculo, a shanty town in the suburbs of Maputo, bear her name. Mutola now lives in Johannesburg but retains close links with her homeland through the Maria Mutola Foundation, which helps fund athletics for underprivileged children and was set up partly with her winnings from last year.

More than one Premiership footballer has lost his incentive to perform after banking his first million, but Jennings marvels at how Mutola juggles the twin demands of being a national heroine and a gold-medal favourite so impressively. “So many people have wanted her time. But with Maria, training never takes a backseat to anything.”

Two years ago Mutola said she would contemplate retiring after the 2005 world championships in Helsinki. Her appetite for success, though, shows no sign of being satisfied. “I just want to run a few more years, maybe one more Olympic Games,” she said. “Then I can actually quit. If I win this year’s Olympics I don’t want to think I have accomplished everything — because if I think that way, I’ll start losing races.” — Â

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