Walking the walk
Crowned Olympic champion in the 20km race walk at Atlanta 1996, Jefferson Perez then added silver in the same event 12 years later in Beijing. He remains Ecuador’s only Olympic medallist, and also the only man in history to win the 20km walk world title three years in a row.
Pilgrimage of honourAs the 20km walk race at Atlanta 1996 neared its climax on 26 July, three athletes were locked in a tussle for gold. As they approached the Olympic Stadium for the finish, the youngest of the three, Ecuador’s Jefferson Perez, launched a powerful break to which his rivals, Ilya Markov (RUS) and Bernardo Segura (MEX), had no response. Making a dramatic solo entrance into the stadium, he was met by a wall of noise from the 85,000 spectators inside. At 22, he became the youngest ever Olympic champion in his discipline, and the first Ecuadorian in history to win a medal at the Games. But he had no intention of resting on his laurels. Honouring a promise he had made to himself, a few weeks after the Games, Perez embarked on a 459km pilgrimage across Ecuador, starting at the cathedral in the capital city, Quito, heading through the mountains (reaching an altitude of 4,800m in places) and finishing in his home village of Cuenca. Along the way, thousands of his compatriots came out to cheer him on and salute his achievement in Atlanta.
The accidental athlete The small village of Cuenca has its very own walking school, the brainchild of local coach, Luis Chocho. The park where the athletes train is even known as “the Chochodrome”, and it was there that Perez took his first steps as a walker. Under the tutelage of Choco, he discovered “how to strengthen my body, and how to develop the fighting spirit of a warrior, but without harming anyone else”.
Hat-trick of world titles Initially, he began competing over 5km, gradually building up to the discipline’s longer distances. At the 1990 World Junior Athletics Championships in Plovdiv (BUL) he claimed the bronze medal in the 10km walk, winning gold in the same competition two years later in Seoul (KOR). Then came the first of four appearances at the Olympic Games, and his finest hour in Atlanta. At Sydney 2000 and then Athens 2004, he narrowly missed out on the podium, finishing fourth on each occasion. At Beijing 2008 his warrior spirit very much in evidence as he fought to the finish for the gold, but ultimately the searing heat took its toll and he was pipped to the line by Russia’s Valeriy Borchin, by a margin of just 14 seconds. Away from the Olympic stage, the Ecuadorian also became the first athlete in history to win the 20km walk at three successive World Athletics Championships: Paris 2003, where he set a new world record of 1hr 17m 21s; Helsinki 2005; and Osaka 2007.
A final hurrahPerez competed for the final time at the Walking World Cup in Murcia (ESP) on 21 September 2008, finishing third. Despite going on to achieve great international success and icon status back home as Ecuador’s first and only Olympic medallist, Perez, who was born into poverty, never forgot his roots. After retiring from athletics, he focused his energies on setting up his own foundation dedicated to providing opportunities for disadvantaged young Ecuadorians.