With the new sensation of women’s 800m running cutting loose way ahead of her, Maria Mutola tonight at the Weltklasse Zürich - ÅF Golden League meeting made a timely and emotional farewell to international athletics. Popularly known as the Maputo Express, Mutola pulled in at her final destination after a spectacular and thrilling 21-year journey.
Mutola finished fourth in a race which saw her Weltklasse meeting record, set as long ago as 1994, fall to 18-year-old Pamela Jelimo. Mutola’s 1:55.19, still her personal best, was fittingly erased by the Kenyan who is regarded as the future of the distance.
Jelimo came here direct from winning the Olympic title and, with a 1:54.01 clocking she set an African senior and World Junior record and moved up to No.3 all-time. The 35-year-old Mutola managed a highly respectable 1:58.71.
But you have to earn your stripes for the Swiss crowd in the Letzigrund Stadium and, as the athletes were introduced before the race, the biggest cheers were for Mutola. For Jelimo, it is one victory down, 11 to go. Mutola won 12 successive Weltklasse 800s from 1993 to 2004.
Sensibly not attempting to go with Jelimo’s pace, Mutola called on her long years of experience to ensure that she put a decent show in her valedictory race. Seventh at the bell, she moved up to fifth with 300m to go and, finally, into fourth place. As she crossed the line, she had given everything.
Mutola’s first reaction was to glance at the clock. It was enough to tell her that she had broken two minutes for in the region of the 200th time in her career. While the daisy-fresh teenager went on her celebration, the veteran warhorse bent over, hands on knees, steadying herself before resting on her haunches.
“My last race, it’s not easy to take, knowing that I have to put the spikes away,” Mutola said, having been asked what her first emotions were after the curtain came down. “But I’m so happy that I did it in Zürich and that I ran under two minutes again. Zürich has been good to me – I have won 12 races here and the crowd is very supportive."
“I have been running in athletics since I was 14 so it has been more than half of my life and, from this moment on, I have to focus on something else. It is very hard but exciting at the same time. I think it would be difficult if I didn’t know what to do from here on.”
Mutola plans to concentrate on her Maria Mutola Foundation project which she created with the aim of helping young children in her home country of Mozambique to take up the sport. “I am going to have more time so I hope to promote that even more now,” Mutola said.
“My goal tonight was to try to break two minutes, try to stay close to the leaders, and see what I can do. The training this season was very hard, keeping focused knowing it was my last year. Sometimes you lose concentration but I tried to keep it going, tried to keep my goals going.”
Was she sure this was her last race? “For me probably it will be the last race of all but I may do something back home to celebrate,” Mutola said. “But it will not be at a professional level, nothing serious.”
And would Mutola, who never touches alcohol, indulge tonight for once? “No, I don’t want to be crazy,” she said. She added that she would leave any celebration until she returned home.
Multiple champion and much more besides
It was 20 summers ago that a 15-year-old Mutola made her Olympic debut in Seoul, where she was eliminated in the heats. Between then and now she has been an Olympic gold medallist, 10-times World champion, and much more besides. Yet still those much-travelled legs have been churning out quality performances this year.
In the World Indoor Championships, in Valencia, in March, Mutola muscled her way onto the podium, taking third place. Two months later she was second to Jelimo in the African Championships in May. At the Olympics she was fifth, rising to the occasion with her season’s best time in the final (1:57.68).
The statistics relating to Mutola’s career are remarkable. In Beijing, she became the first athlete to contest five successive Olympic track finals; she was the first athlete to win four individual World Cup titles; she holds a record seven World Indoor titles.
At the outdoor World Championships, Mutola was three times a gold medallist; she was the Olympic champion in 2000, was twice Commonwealth Games champion, and won five African Championships golds (including one at 1500m) and three All Africa Games titles.
Although the 800m World record proved beyond her reach, Mutola was not to be denied the World record experience, taking the 1000m mark in 1995 and the indoor 1000m record twice (in 1996 and 1999); between 1992 and 1996, she won 50 successive 800m races (excluding her disqualification from the 1995 World Championships for stepping out of her lane).
However, perhaps most remarkable of allis her 17-year ever-present record at Olympics and World Championships. She hasn’t missed one, indoors or out, from the 1991 outdoor World Championships through to the Beijing Olympics, an unbroken run of 23 tournaments. Sad to say, there won’t be a 24th.
David Powell for the IAAF