If it weren’t that almost everyone in Portugal had told her not to, Rosa Mota might never have run a marathon.
But because they said she should avoid them, she did not.
You see, in Portugal, marathons mean death. People reason that if Francisco Lazaro, who was 21 when he ran the Olympic marathon at Stockholm, then collapsed and died after the race, it was too dangerous to even contemplate.
That was in 1912, but the memory lingers. Lazaro is a part of Portuguese folk history. There are streets named after him. Even his name has become synonymous with illness.
“If someone is not feeling well, we say he is looking like Lazaro,” Mota said.
With the marathon evoking this sort of legacy in Portugal, small wonder that Mota’s grandmother, upon hearing that her granddaughter was planning to run the 26-mile 385-yard race, told Mota that her bones would be crushed and by the end of the race, that they would wear away like tread on a tire.
Good thing Rosa Mota doesn’t listen to anyone or anything but her insistent heart, which told her that it was right and good that she run. The world might not have had the pleasure of watching this tiny champion: 1988 Olympic gold medalist, 1987 world champion, 1984 Olympic bronze medalist, two-time winner of the Boston Marathon and ranked No. 1 in the world in 1987 and ’88. She has a best time of 2 hours 23 minutes 29 seconds.
Mota, the favorite in the women’s division of today’s Los Angeles Marathon, does not get angry talking about it all now. A spark that flickers in her eyes communicates her belief, that she was right and they were wrong.
“I started training in 1972,” Mota, 30, said in ever-improving English. “It was very difficult because the men didn’t like me to be in the street, running. They would tell me a woman should be at home. When I was training, they say, ‘Go home, woman. You should be at home.’
“I didn’t like to hear these things. I try always to run hard to compete and show the old men that women can do what the men are doing. I don’t like to be in a different position, I want to be in the same position as men.”
This was difficult. Growing up in Oporto, in the Catholic north, Mota’s running was a challenge to a social system that dictated that women should always walk with chaperones. To be alone, and running, was just not done.
Things in sleepy Portugal have changed. Now, Mota says, it is not uncommon for women to jog in the streets. She thinks her success might have something to do with that.
“I feel proud of myself,” she said, not shyly. “I think that it is very good for women to be in the sport. There is a big, big difference. Now we have many races, there are a lot of people jogging.”
Mota admits that none of this might have happened had it not been for her contrary nature--the more she was told not to do it, the more she ran.
“If everything is easy . . . " Mota shrugged. “I like difficult things. Sometimes it stimulates me to go against people who don’t want me to do something.”
Mota ran--and won--her first marathon in 1982, in the European Championships at Athens. When her coach, Jose Pedrosa, told her of the distance, she reflected awhile. “I think, 42 kilometers. It is the distance between Oporto and another city. It is so far.”
Pedrosa told her to start slow and try to finish. He knew what awaited him in Portugal if this woman injured herself: The marathon claims another Portuguese victim . . .
To her surprise, Mota found herself with the lead pack at the halfway point.
“I forget the distance, I only worry about the other runners,” she said. “I was afraid to get tired. They always talk about the wall. I never hit.”
Even after her victory at Athens, Pedrosa said that many people in Portugal remained skeptical of the marathon.
“They still have all those thoughts, but they were afraid to express them,” Pedrosa said. “There were some people connected with track and field who were not so sure it was the right thing. They were expecting after that, Rosa’s career would collapse because of the marathon.” Still, it was Portugal’s only medal in the European Championships and the nation was thrilled.
“It was a party for the whole country,” Mota said. “People stay so happy, they forget everything.”
However, the people who run running in Portugal have not forgotten.
Mota has been something like Portugal’s Dennis the Menace. Her unseemly running through the streets rankled most of the male population and, lately, her failure to agree with the Portuguese Athletic Federation on its ideas of what she could do with her career.
In seeking to insulate Mota from political fallout, Pedrosa has been dealing directly with officials. He’s the bad guy, too, in their view.
“It really starts in Athens,” Pedrosa said of the disagreements. “They didn’t allow Rosa to run the marathon in Athens. They wanted her to run a marathon to qualify. Either she runs a marathon, or she doesn’t do it. We said, ‘Well, you are killing the chance for her getting a good result.’ ”
It took several months for the federation to make up its mind. The federation decided that Mota must run the 3,000 meters first, early in the championships, then she would be allowed to run the marathon on the last day.
“That was the only option they gave us,” Pedrosa said. “They obliged Rosa to train for the 3,000 and qualify in the 3,000 in order to be able to run the marathon. So, that was the beginning of the big troubles we have. The situation got like that and it stays like that. It didn’t change. They want Rosa to run when it is convenient for them.”
It was convenient for the Portuguese federation for Mota to run in the World Road Race Championships last fall at Monaco, for example. It didn’t fit in Mota’s schedule.
“We don’t refuse, we say, ‘Wait, I want to run some street races in Portugal because that’s where I started,’ ” Mota said.
Pedrosa told the federation officials that Mota was planning to run low-key road races.
“First they said yes, but then they realize that if Rosa doesn’t go, we will not be so important,” Pedrosa said. “Plus, this is the only chance they have to get Rosa in trouble. Because now she is supposedly refusing to compete for Portugal in a world championship. But they already knew she could not go. They used the situation to try to get people against Rosa.”
But Mota, as usual, got her way. She did not run at Monaco and was suspended by the federation for four months before Seoul.
It was one of what Pedrosa calls “blackmail situations,” in which federation officials tried to gain the upper hand against Mota and attempt to control her running. However, even though the suspension was in effect during the Seoul Olympics, Mota said she never seriously doubted she would be prevented from competing.
“They want the medal,” she said.
The controversy boiled to the point that the Minister of Education was brought in to find a way to allow Mota to run the marathon and let the federation save face.
The whole situation was bizarre, all the more so because Mota was not then, and is still not, registered with the Portuguese federation. She was suspended by a federation to which she didn’t belong.
“It was absolutely illogical,” Pedrosa said.
Mota: “I get angry with a few officials, not the country. Because I know it was very good for the sport, my medal. Also for the country.”
Her pride in Portugal shows through. In Seoul, she said she was proud of winning the gold because, “We are a small country and today we are the same size as other countries.”
As much as they love Mota and her accomplishments, though, there is this lingering suspicion that the fun-loving Portuguese people are delighted with each of Mota’s major victories because they know the entire nation will break out into a party upon her return.
“The most beautiful party for me was at my place in Oporto,” Mota said of her return to Portugal after the Olympics on Oct. 5. “A lot of people were at the airport, waiting for me. And between the airport and a hotel, the people made almost a line. A lot of cars.”
Coincidentally, the day of her return was also a national holiday, National Day.
“When I got to my home (from the airport), there were more parties . . . next day, next day, next day,” Mota said, rolling her eyes.
Asked if she had grown tired after a round or two of the parties, Mota, the endurance athlete, said, “No. I stay always with the people.”
The nation of 10 million is enchanted with its 5-foot-1 heroine. Partly because their heroine is enamored of the country, too.
“It is important to be with friends and the people,” she said. “There is only one time to get a gold medal. “I want to have a friendly relationship with all people. I am here to compete, but besides compete, I am here to talk to people.”
That attitude has gotten her in trouble with Pedrosa, who told her in Boston to stop waving to the crowds, since it was adding to her time.
Typically, Mota did the opposite. Mota waved and blew kisses to the crowd literally from the start to finish of the Boston Marathon in 1987. She said she was winning for the Portuguese community of Boston, who had lined the streets in force for her.
“He told me to wave after I finished the race,” Mota said. “People are so nice with me, I think it is one way of saying thank you for being here to help us.”
Mota laughs at the elaborate psych-out tactics employed by some athletes. In the marathon, Mota says, “We are all like a family.”
And, Mota is quick to acknowledge her debt to others, chiefly Norway’s Grete Waitz. Mota eagerly credits Waitz with inspiring her to run. Mota said that in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, in which the veteran Waitz was the silver medalist and the upstart Mota won the bronze, she was thrilled to be on the same medal platform as her idol.
They finally met again in the Seoul marathon, with Mota’s star on the ascendancy and Waitz’s on the wane. Waitz attempted to come back from knee surgery in that race but was forced to drop out. There was a time in the race, however, when Mota was able to run with Waitz.
“We are racing together,” she said. “I give her some water and she gives me also some water. I feel so proud, so happy, to be with Grete. I respect her a lot. Sometimes I feel like saying, ‘Slower’, because she is for me a hero. It is a pleasure to run with Grete. I am sorry about what happened (to her) in Seoul.”
Mota expresses a simple outlook on life. In this Mota appears unperturbed, and--characteristically--immovable.
“When I am running, I like to compete,” she said. “I like to run fast. When I am not in the race, I like to enjoy life. To meet some people. That’s the way I am.”