Award-winning runner role model for African leaders

Award-winning runner role model for African leaders

Date: January 1, 1970
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Mozambican runner Maria de Lurdes Mutola recently won the All Africa Sports Awards best female athlete in an award ceremony held in Accra, Ghana on 19 November. After two Olympic medals, 12 world championships and numerous race wins all over the world, including the sole winner of the $1 million prize for the Golden League in 2003, Mutola is no stranger to awards.

Having dominated the 800m track over the past 15 years, many sport statisticians and journalists tout her as the best 800m runner ever. Yet, what many outside of Mozambique do not know, is that she is also doing what many rich and famous African female leaders have failed to do: find a sustainable way to give back substantially to Africa and their home countries
Mutola is a pioneer among both men and women. For Mutola, raising the Mozambican flag in sports arenas has been common. Now she is also raising awareness and money to help her country through sport and education.
In January of this year, Mutola received a specifically telling award – election to the Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum. This group is composed of  the “world’s most extraordinary leaders who are 40 years old or younger and who are ready to dedicate a part of their time and energy to jointly work towards a better future.”
This group of under 40s is no run of the mill club, Sergey Brin the Founder of Google, and NBA basketball giant Yao Ming are just a few of the members. The group includes nine South Africans from those elected in 2005 and 2006, including Angela Thoko Didiza, the former South African Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs, who was elected in 2005 (before turning 40).
Mutola’s election was not because of her athletic prowess and dominance, but as the Founder of the Lurdes Mutola Foundation. In 2001, relatively soon after her Olympic Gold metal, Mutola decided that she wanted to find a systematic and sustainable way to help her fellow country men and women. 
Mozambique was then, and is now, one of the poorest countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the world, ranked 10th lowest in the world on the Human Development Index.
For years, Mutola supported athletes and athletic associations in an ad hoc and small way. She then felt she needed a platform to create greater change in the areas that were true to her heart: sports and education.
 “The Foundation focuses on these areas, because I know that without an education I would not be where I am today.  Sports without education does not work, and I support sports because it creates healthy children physically and mentally,” says Mutola, whose Foundation also supports culture and entrepreneurship for youth.
The Foundation began its activities in 2002 making small grants to athletes, hosting conferences and workshops and finding a way to get the busy Mutola to participate in activities.
 “Maria has an incredibly busy schedule, she was in her prime, and still does compete at the top level,” says Macame Bruhane Macame, the Executive Director of her Foundation.  “She is loved in Mozambique, and she feels the same way, which is how she finds time to compete and lead the Foundation.”
Foundations are not common in Mozambique.  The legislation had to be created after her announcement in 2001.  Both Mutola’s and Mama Graça Machel’s Fund turned Foundation, the Foundation for Community Development (FDC), registered as Foundations in 2004.  Mutola is not alone as the only female leader giving back to her country.
Mutola injected her own funds and money from her sponsorships to start and sustain the Foundation in its first years.  This philanthropy is uncommon at a large scale in Mozambique and around Africa by female leaders. 
Ad hoc charity and support of initiatives is different that creating a vision and a method to develop sustainable projects, Mutola is a pioneer as a young African female with a Foundation.
In 2005, the Mozambican Ministry of Health and the Foundation teamed up to harness the power of the Mutola image to mobilise more children for the Measles and Polio vaccination campaign.
Perhaps her vision relates to her humble beginnings. Born on 27 October 1972 in Maputo City, her father worked on the railway and her mother was a domestic worker.  They lived in a peri-urban slum called Chamanculo, where her love of sports was apparent from a young age. There where times when she skipped school in order to train football with boys neighboring townships. 
Her talents where spotted early by a famous Mozambican poet, Jose Craverinha. 
Craverinha’s support for her led her to receive and Olympic Solidarity Grant that brought her to the United States of America where she would spend 12 years training and becoming the incredible success that she is today.
Although her Foundation still seeks grants, its scope has not changed from her initial interest in providing services to youth.  The Foundation now gets grants from regional as well as international foundations, private and corporate giving as well as having opened up a non-profit branch in the USA to channel more philanthropic giving to strengthen its projects.
On the track, in 2007, Mutola had hits and misses.  In June, she won the Prefontaine Classic in her host home of Eugene, Oregon in the USA for an incredible 15th time in a row, a feat whose ramifications are small, but, whose replication are infinitesimal.  However, in August, she pulled up with a hamstring injury in the final of the World Athletic Outdoor Championships in Osaka, Japan.
Mutola has stated numerous times that she will end her career in running in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics.  It will be the 6th Olympics in which she competes, having competed in Seoul in 1988 at the age of 15.
Her time on the track may be coming to a close, but a possibly more difficult task than being the world number one in athletics is to confront the daunting task of development in Mozambique through her Foundation.  Well positioned to do so, she is has turned her herself from one of the most successful female African athletes to one of the greatest.
Gabriel Fossati-Bellani is the Director of Institutional Development at the Lurdes Mutola Foundation. This article is part of a series produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence.

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