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Mutola Carries Hopes of War-Torn Country into Atlanta Games

June 1, 1996

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) _ Growing up in Maputo, Maria Mutola could hear the guns of war on the outskirts of the city.

Government troops had set up a last line of defense outside the Mozambique capital. In a country suffering from poverty and torn by civil war, Mutola played soccer in the streets and wondered about the land beyond the gunfire.

``In 1993, when I won the world championship, the war had ended and you could travel by car,″ said Mutola, the favorite to win the Olympic 800 meters and a threat in the 1,500. ``It was the first time I had seen the country.″

Each September, Mutola returns to Maputo, a crowded city on the southeastern coast of Africa. The war is over. The country is ruled by an elected government.

It is a country that has made her its idol.

Wherever she goes, she is greeted by smiles and people calling her name. Children run after her. The president calls her in for visits and calls her a symbol of what the country can become.

``He looks to me in certain ways,″ Mutola said. ``I have to talk to kids. I have to motivate them. It’s part of success. If you’re successful, you’re able to be nice. You’re able to motivate other people. Especially me, because I was discovered. Somebody discovered me and helped me and talked to me. So my goal is to help other people reach their goals.″

Five years after she arrived in Eugene as a shy, frightened 18-year-old who spoke no English and had a fifth-grade education, Mutola is perhaps the world’s best female middle-distance runner. Many predict she will be the best of all time.

Mutola’s countrymen are certain she will bring Mozambique its first Olympic medal, and a gold one at that.

``There is a lot of pressure, of course, because I am the only one who is running at this level,″ she said. ``When they talk about the Olympic Games and world championships, they expect me to win.″

The weight of expectations seems not to affect Mutola, who laughs easily and speaks near-perfect English.

``I think the fact she is carrying the banner for a whole country can be looked at very positively because it’s in good hands. She can handle it,″ said her coach, Margo Jennings. ``She knows the importance of what she is doing. She knows that she is the first, and she’s strong enough, her shoulders are broad enough, to carry it. She looks at it as an opportunity and not as a burden.″

Now a familiar part of Eugene’s world-class running scene, Mutola has bought a home and drives the Mercedes she received for winning the 1993 800-meter world championship.

``It’s amazing to me. It’s unbelievable,″ she said. ``I never thought that one day I would own my own home, be on my own, do things on my own, own my own car.″

The remarkable story of Mutola’s athletic and personal transformation began nine years ago, when she was 14, the youngest of six children. Her father was a railroad clerk. Her mother worked in an outdoor market.

The only girl on her soccer team, Mutola scored the winning goal in a league championship game. The other team protested that it wasn’t fair to allow a girl to play. League officials agreed and took away the title.

The story made the local newspaper and drew the attention of prominent Mozambican poet Jose Craveirinha, whose son Stelio is a track coach.

The elder Craveirinha told Mutola she should try running because there was no future for her in soccer. As a runner, he said, she could be an Olympic champion.

``She didn’t even know what running was,″ said Jeff Fund, who also coaches Mutola in Oregon.

Within a year, at age 15, Mutola was running for Mozambique in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. She wasn’t a contender, but she drew the attention of Olympic Solidarity, an organization that provides money to help promising Third World athletes study and train in other countries.

Word of Mutola’s desire to come to the United States reached Bob Crites, a Eugene school counselor who had learned Portuguese while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil. He was willing to help her.

``We contacted a lot of different places in the West and Eugene was the first place to answer us,″ she said. ``It happened that we found Bob Crites, who speaks Portuguese, and that was helpful to me because I didn’t speak English at the time.″

She arrived in March 1991 and entered Springfield High School, living with a family Crites had found.

Alone half a world from Maputo in a culture she didn’t understand and with only Crites to talk to, Mutola nearly gave up.

``She turned to me during practice one day and said, `I want to go home,‴ Crites said.

But a phone conversation with her sister changed her mind.

``I told her, `I’m not feeling good here. I wish I was home,‴ Mutola said. ``She told me, `What are you going to come here to do? It’s better to stay over there and sacrifice and one day you will become somebody.′ In 1992, when I went back home, I said thanks to my sister for the advice she gave me.″

Less than two months after her arrival, Mutola ran her first race at the Oregon Invitational and broke the Mozambique record for 1,500 meters.

Jennings and Fund, who were married at the time, wanted to enter her in the 800 at the New York Games, but the meet director balked at accepting an unknown teen-ager.

Only after Nike executive Steve Miller and University of Oregon women’s coach Tom Heinonen intervened was Mutola allowed to race in New York. On July 20, 1991, she won in 2 minutes, .22 seconds.

``After that race is when I started believing in myself,″ Mutola said, ``that I can go far and be a world champion some day.″

It took her just two years to reach that goal. And she’s kept winning. Her victory string in 800-meter finals, started in 1992, has reached 47. Her personal best is 1:55.19, the seventh-fastest of all time.

Her only misstep came in last year’s world championships, when she was disqualified in the 800 semifinals for stepping on the line.

``I learned,″ she said, ``to be very, very careful.″

Mutola’s rapid success prompted many to question her age. Africans aren’t known for keeping good birth records, and the suspicion was that Mutola was a lot older than 18 when she arrived in the United States. But she has a birth certificate that says she indeed was born Oct. 27, 1972.

Through it all, Mutola seems anything but consumed by self.

She brought her 15-year-old niece, Catarina, to live with her after the child’s mother died. Catarina wants to be a runner like her aunt.

Mutola also is supporting track in her homeland. Proceeds from the sale of T-shirts, posters and other memorabilia that bear her name and picture in Mozambique are being used to resurface a track and develop a training program.

And when a Eugene homeless shelter asked Mutola for a uniform to sell at a fund-raising auction, she donated the one she wore last year when she set the world 1,000-meter record in Brussels.

This Olympics will be her third. In 1992 in Barcelona, at age 19, she was fifth in the 800 and ninth in the 1,500. With an entire country watching her, she’d be the obvious choice to carry her country’s flag in the opening ceremonies in Atlanta.

``If I want to, I can do that,″ she said, ``but I think it would be good for whoever is the youngest to carry it.″

After all, Mutola is carrying a much bigger load.

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