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Million Dollar Mutola

At 31 years of age, middle distance ace Maria Mutola made history by becoming the very first outright winner of the IAAF Golden League Jackpot. In a year which saw her unbeaten at 800m she also won her third World outdoor and fifth World indoor titles. David Martin reports

Olympic champion Maria Mutola has produced many great performances since emerging as a global star in 1993 as World Indoor and Outdoors 800 metres gold medallist.

In her ultra-consistent decade that has followed, Mutola has almost every year stood virtually head-and-shoulders above her opponents collecting major Championship titles as quickly as air miles in her global travels.
But no one can argue 2003 has been the Mozambique athlete's most successful season ever where unmatched superiority has seen her gain the richest rewards - both medal wise and financially - of her career.

Winning a fifth World Indoor title in March was only a preview of  what lay ahead in a summer where Mutola keeping a clean sheet in a dozen 800 metres races, also retained and won a third outdoor crown.

As good and convincing these gold medal performances were, the former teenage soccer player will undoubtedly been remembered for becoming the first-ever outright winner of the IAAF Golden League Jackpot.

Showing mental concentration matching the determination which is the hallmark of her racing consistency, Mutola claimed the million dollar purse for herself.

Few athletes could have survived the pressure Mutola had to live with before clinching the richest prize in the sport's history when walking-off with the massive cash prize after scoring six successive Golden League victories.

Commencing her clean sheet when the showpiece of the IAAF's summer competitive schedule got underway in Oslo on 27 June, Mutola found herself in the unique but stressful position of being sole Jackpot contender when the fourth fixture finished in Berlin on 10 August.

In a bizarre situation, Mutola and Chandra Sturrup of the Bahamas found themselves by the conclusion of the second meeting in Paris only a week after the Bislett Games, the only two Jackpot contenders.

Of the 13 Golden League winners in the Norwegian capital, the pair were the only performers to maintain their clean sheets in the Stade de France where a crowd of 55,500 gave competitors a preview of the crescendo of noise they could expect before the following month's IAAF World Championships.

Clinically disposing of her rivals with a 29.3 final 200 metres and victory ahead of Jolanda Ceplak in 1:57.58, Mutola emerged as odds-on favourite to grab the Jackpot purse for herself.

Sturrup of course remained in contention. But as good as her performances were, there was always a nagging doubt whether the former World Indoor 60 metres title holder could continue to control the 100 metres in the manner Mutola dominated her speciality 800 metres.

Both maintained their winning streaks when Rome's Olympic Stadium drew the Golden League to its halfway point. Seven days after Paris, Mutola chalked up a 12th successive victory in 1:57.21 with Sturrup winning her 100m in a world leading 10.89.

Even better came from Mutola when getting away from the hurly burly of GL competition. Eight days after her Rome outing and running in Madrid's Super Grand Prix, she raced to the year's fastest time of 1:55.55 - the fourth quickest time of her career.

No one could fault consistent Sturrup when clocking an exceptional windy 10.88 in the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn Sportpark on 10 August.

But on resumption of the Golden League schedule after a month's break at the East Berlin venue the US pair of Kelli White and Chryste Gaines easily outpaced her.

That left Mutola in the unique but nerve-wracking position of knowing she alone was steering a course into the history books if maintaining the momentum of remaining undefeated.

There were no outward, visible mental signs of the situation she found herself in when shortly after Sturrup's 100 metres demise, Mutola lined-up for her race.

Two laps of the stadium were covered in a controlled 1:59.01 and although main rivals Stephanie Graf and Mina Ait Hammou were close on her heels, there was only ever going to be one winner.

A huge responsibility placed on her powerful shoulders even before her event, Mutola said: "I heard the news before I warmed up and started to feel the pressure. But I feel good about Zurich. It's my lucky track."

Indeed five days later, Mutola took on her familiar rivals in the sell-out Letzigrund Stadium, a track which had seen her achieve a remarkable 10 successive victories on previous visits.

The winning streak continued on her favourite track. “Zurich is just magical," said Mutola again shrugging off the challenge of Graf with an easy 1:59.93 victory.

"I have been winning here every year since 1993 and today the pressure was double as I was also defending my Jackpot quest."

At least there would be a three weeks respite from worrying whether she would bank the million dollars cheque. Mutola said: “I am very happy to be still in contention for the Jackpot.

"But I am even happier that I can now forget about it for a couple of weeks and finally focus 100% on the World Championships."

"The break will make it strange and probably the fact that I will be so close to winning the jackpot. If I do win it, I will....oh I don’t know what I will do!”

Mutola made no bones that as welcome as the windfall of cash might be, defending the IAAF World crown she earned in Edmonton two years earlier, was now top priority. 

“I know I am in excellent shape and I will try and take advantage of my shape to try and defend my world title in Paris," said Mutola. “The World Championships race will be very important to me."

Both European champion Jolanda Ceplak and Graf runner-up in 2001 were absent through injuries when Mutola returned to the French capital - but she knew there is no such thing as victory being a formality.

However controlling the final from start-to-finish with a little help from training partner Kelly Holmes, the defending champion chalked up a third success in 1:59.89 ahead of the Briton and Russia's Natalya Khrushchelyova.

Quiet and retiring and a highly respected uncontroversial woman, Mutola unfortunately found her tactics and those of Holmes criticised by the bronze-medallist.

"I really thought I could get a silver medal when we came into the final straight," said the Russian. "But then Mutola obviously helped her friend and I couldn't get past them."

The winner was unperturbed by the comments. "Kelly is my training partner and she has had a lot of trouble with injury this year and her spirit was very low and she was struggling for motivation," said Mutola.

“It was my job to motivate her and it is great to see her win the silver," added the three-times champion, her thoughts already turning to life back on the circuit and the final Golden League meeting.

An early arrival in Brussels  for what would be the best Golden League meeting of the year, Mutola looked totally relaxed at the pre-race Memorial Van Damme press conference.

"I am not specially nervous for this race," said Mutola. "I was certainly more stressed before the Olympic final in Sydney because I really wanted the gold medal.

"But of course there is a lot of pressure. I have never run for such an amount of money and I am very excited about it."

Certainly in the three weeks which had elapsed since Zurich, Mutola had considered what she might do with the small fortune more likely to come her way.

Herself schooled in Eugene,Oregon, USA  through a US Olympic Solidarity grant, Mutola revealed: "If I win the jackpot, part of my money will go to the "Maria Mutola Foundation" in Mozambique.

"It helps young people to get education and learn about track and field. For instance a girl of 15 is following high school in Eugene and training there. We also got a synthetic track in Mozambique thanks to the Foundation."

Down to business watched by a packed crowd in the former Heysel Stadium, Mutola like the remainder of the field stayed off the pace as Letitia Vriesde dashed through the first 400 metres in 56.15.

Instead, Mutola with 250 metres remaining,produced a stunning burst for the line easily winning ahead of Khrushchelyova and Ait Hammou as the first seven finishers bettered two minutes.

There was elation on the face of Mutola and no one could question the woman who has ran under two minutes on over 100 occasions for 800 metres, deserved every last dollar of the million she earned after the tormenting wait she had endured since becoming sole Jackpot contender almost a month earlier.

After her victory, Mutola said: "It definitely was a very difficult race for me tonight. It’s the biggest amount of money I’ve ever run for in my life.

"It wasn’t easy to stay calm and I was obviously very nervous coming into this competition.
“The race tonight was very different and very difficult. I couldn’t see my time at the 200 metre mark but I tried to stay with the group and change gear at the end.

“I know I have been very strong this year but you always have doubts until the race is actually over.

"I have been running very well throughout the season but anything can happen so I never really thought I had the Jackpot until I actually crossed the finish line.

“I am definitely going to donate part of the money to the Maria Mutola Foundation which I created with the aim of helping young children back in Mozambique to take up sport.

"I will obviously put some money aside for my future but my foundation is primarily important for me.

“My story is well known now. I was sponsored by a grant from Olympic Solidarity and I want to try and give something back now.

"There are a lot of projects that can be done back home. I really do hope that by the 2008 Olympic Games there will be 12 to 15 athletes in the Mozambique team.”

Not surprisingly the attention and generosity Maputo-born Mutola has shown in particular to her country and African athletics in general, has been recognised at the highest level.

A couple of weeks after finishing her season by winning the IAAF World Athletics Final in Monaco and then an international meeting in Moscow, the United Nations appointed Mutola a Youth Ambassador in recognition of her achievements in athletics.

David Martin is the Athletics Correspondent for the British Agency Press Association

Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 4 - 2003