Mutola was born in the Chamanculo district of Maputo. Her father was employed by the railways and her mother was a market vendor. As a young girl she excelled in football. She played with boys, as there were no leagues or teams for girls. In 1988, at only fifteen years of age, she was encouraged to take up athletics by one of Mozambique's foremost literary figures, the poet Jose Craveirinha, who was a keen sports fan. His son Stelio, himself a former national long jump record holder, was Mutola's first coach. Not used to the intensive training, Mutola initially decided that running was not for her, but was persuaded to continue when it became obvious that she had immense potential. After a visit to Portugal, plans were made for her to join the Benfica athletics club but at the last minute the Mozambique government denied her permission. That year, after only a few months' training, she won a silver medal in the 800 m at the African Championships, before competing in the 1988 Summer Olympics. She ran a personal best time of 2:04.36, but finished last in her first round heat. Mutola was still only fifteen years old.
Over the next few years Mutola failed to improve on her best time, but still won gold at the African Championships in Cairo in 1990.
She faced little opposition in Mozambique and only trained properly in the run-up to big competitions. Attempts were made to organise scholarships for her to train abroad, but it was not until 1991 that, thanks to an International Olympic Committee Solidarity Program, she went to Oregon, USA to study and train. Springfield High School was the host school, due to the fact that there was a Portuguese-speaking staff member (Mutola spoke no English). She surprised many by finishing 4th in the final of the 1991 IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Tokyo, where her time of 1:57.63 constituted a World Junior Record. Mutola lost out on a medal because she was severely impeded in the final few metres by falling athletes and an unsuccessful protest was lodged.
At the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona there were great hopes for Mutola to win Mozambique's first Olympic medal. She ran strongly but faded badly in the home straight, eventually finishing fifth behind eventual winner Ellen van Langen. At the same Games, Mutola ran her only 1500 m at an international championship, placing 9th in the final. She also won the IAAF World Cup 800 m and was the only person to beat Ellen van Langen throughout the whole year.
Over the next few years, Mutola dominated the 800 m event, winning the 800 m title at the 1993 and 1995 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Athletics and the 1993 IAAF World Championships in Athletics. At the latter event, held in Stuttgart she won by over two seconds, the biggest ever winning margin in an international women's 800 m final. A favourite for the world outdoor title in 1995 as well, she was disqualified in her semi final for stepping outside of her lane. Some consolation came at the Memorial van Damme meeting a few weeks after the championships, when she broke the world record for 1000 m, becoming the first woman ever to run the distance in less than two and a half minutes. She also went on to break the world indoor record for 1000 m.
Her immense success and her total domination of the event during this period can be attributed to the guidance that she has received since 1991 from Margo Jennings. Jennings was a track coach at Springfield High School and continued to coach Mutola even when she had relocated from Oregon to Johannesburg to escape the high pollen count. Jennings faxes Mutola's training schedules to her in South Africa, and has also coached other world class 800 m runners like Kelly Holmes, Namibian athlete Agnes Samaria and Tina Paulino, who is actually a distant relative of Mutola's.
At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Mutola was a hot favourite for the gold, as she hadn't been beaten in an 800 m final since 1992 and her winning streak stretched to over forty 800 m and 1000 m finals. However, suffering from the flu, she ended up finishing third behind Svetlana Masterkova and Ana Quirot. Later in 1996 Mutola lost her world 1000 m record to Masterkova.
Status in 800 m race history
Mutola is often ranked as the greatest female 800 m runner of all time. She has not gained a world record, but her consistency, her record at major championships and her ability to compete at the highest levels of the sport for well over a decade are unmatched. (The 2008 Olympics were her sixth successive Olympics.)
Mutola won bronze in the 1997 IAAF World Championships in Athletics and silver in 1999. She also won the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Athletics in 1997, only weeks after her father had been killed in a car accident. She raced wearing a black ribbon and dedicated the victory to his memory. In total she has won nine world 800 m titles including both indoor and outdoor championships. She won the Commonwealth Games twice, after Mozambique was admitted to the Commonwealth in 1995, and has also won the IAAF World Cup event, representing the Africa team, four times consecutively.
Her greatest moment, though, came at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, when Mutola finally won Olympic gold. She beat her major rival Stephanie Graf and Kelly Holmes. She returned to Mozambique after her Olympic victory, huge crowds came to cheer her and a road was named after her in Maputo.
She continued her successes in the 2001 season, grabbing the world title in Edmonton and again in 2003 in Paris. It was widely felt that Mutola ran tactically during the 2003 race by setting a slow pace in order to aid her training partner Kelly Holmes. As a result of such a strategy Holmes was able to take silver. Mutola was unbeaten throughout 2003 and grabbed the headlines again that year, at the Memorial van Damme race in Belgium. By winning here, it meant that she became sole winner of the IAAF one million dollar jackpot, awarded to athletes who remained undefeated during the IAAF Golden League series of competitions. She put part of her winnings towards the foundation that she had established in her name in Mozambique.
Aiming to become the first woman to successfully defend the Olympic 800 m title in 2004, her fifth Olympics, Mutola ended up finishing fourth, and out of the medals. Despite carrying a hamstring injury, Mutola was in the gold medal position until the final few metres, when three athletes passed her, including the eventual champion, her former training partner Kelly Holmes. In 2005 her injuries were still lingering and she suffered several losses to opponents she would normally easily beat. She parted amicably with her coach Margo Jennings, before returning to good form in 2006, when she won the World Indoor title for a record seventh time.
At the 2007 IAAF World Championships, Mutola was in contention for a medal entering into the home straight, but pulled out of the race in the dying metres.
In 2008, the 800 metres African record held by Mutola was beaten by the young Pamela Jelimo of Kenya . Mutola has decided that the 2008 Olympic Games would be her last major championships, and she finished fifth in the 800 metres Olympic final.
She was appointed an honorary United Nations youth ambassador in 2003 at a ceremony in Maputo, in recognition of her outstanding athletic achievements. Other youth ambassadors are musician Baaba Maal and basketball star Dikembe Mutombo. She cited the importance of raising awareness of HIV/AIDS issues amongst young people in Africa and also highlighted the benefits that sport can bring to young people. Indeed, her Lurdes Mutola Foundation aims to bring more young Mozambicans to sport and to assist in helping them achieve their sporting and educational potential. Other initiatives that Mutola and her Foundation have been involved in include a Ministry of Health / UNICEF immunisation campaign against measles and polio and housing development initiatives in Maputo. Even before the establishment of the Foundation, she had played an active role in supporting sport in Maputo. She gave financial support that allowed an artificial track to be constructed on the sports ground at which she had originally trained as a fifteen-year old.
She also authorised the sale of t-shirts that featured her image, profits from which went towards helping the Grupo Desportivo de Maputo out of financial difficulty.
At the 2006 Winter Olympics she was one of the eight Olympic flag bearers at the Opening Ceremony.