Samuel Richards for IAAF
9 March 2001 - Lisbon, Portugal - Maria Mutola is the greatest sports star to emerge from Mozambique. But as she eased into tomorrow's semi-finals of the 800 metres at the World Indoor Championships she knew the people of her country never needed her inspiration more.
Mutola, the Olympic champion, had hardly regained her breath in Lisbon when she turned her thoughts to her homeland which has been ravaged by a flood disaster which has killed over 60 people and made more than 80,000 homeless in areas near the Zambezi River.
"What has happened there puts sport into perspective," said Mutola, who is treated like royalty in Mozambique. "I aim to win the gold medal here and whatever I achieve, I hope it can be of some sort of motivation to the people back home."
Mutola´s family are in the capital of Maputo, they have not been affected by the floods but she said: "It is hard to imagine what is happening there. I have spoken to them and we all just hope the problem will end soon."
Mutola was the first Mozambique athlete to win an Olympic gold medal when she triumphed in Sydney with a superb performance in the 800m final and when she returned 'home' she was given a reception fit for a Queen.
She divides her time between living in South Africa, Eugene in America and with her family in Maputo.
It is hardly surprising then that while her heart behind this attempt to retain the 800m indoor title she won in Paris in 1997, her mind is on the traumatic events in Mozambique.
She looked her supreme self for the 2:04.16 minutes it took her to reach the semi-finals with a straight-forward, professional performance in the first round.
At jogging pace for the first two laps, Mutola was in total command, injecting a fierce burst of pace in the final 150m to sail into the lead, crossing the line looking powerfully and totally in control of her ability.
Second was Tanzanias Lwiza John but this event could become one of the best races of these championships. Throughout the winter season, Mutola and Stephanie Graf of Austria, the European indoor champion who finished second in Sydney, have had a string of great races, culminating with a thrilling confrontation in Lievin in the final of the Energizer Series.
Mutola was in the lead as the pair hit the home straight but Graf stormed past her rival with 20m left.
A week earlier in Birmingham, Graf had been disqualified for pushing Mutola.
Graf reached the semi-finals by finishing second in her heat yesterday in 2:04.58 in a race won by Ivonne Teichmann of Germany in 2:04.47 and while Slovakia's Jolanda Ceplak-Steblovnik was the fastest qualifier with 2:02.97, Mutola and Graf are just warming up.
"Winning the Olympics is the ultimate achievement for an athlete," said Mutola yesterday. "But it is great being back at a championships so soon after Sydney. I love runing at these events, it provides such fantastic hunger and no athlete can ever say they are tired of winning a major event."
Few athletes could have such motivation to achieve gold.