Minutes after winning his country’s first-ever Olympic medal, race walker Erick Barrondo served up golden prose for reporters at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Six years on, we caught up with the Guatemalan hero to discuss the impact of his words and deeds.
"I hope that this medal inspires the kids at home to put down guns and knives, and pick up a pair of trainers instead."
This was the message 21-year-old Erick Barrondo delivered to the world after finishing second behind China’s Chen Ding in the men’s 20km race walk at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
An event that had previously been of principal interest to the Chinese media – Chen and third-placed Wang Zhen were their nation’s first medallists in the event - and the Guatemalan press suddenly caught the imagination of people across the globe.
On reflection, that was exactly what an emotional Barrondo had been hoping for.
“When I said those words, my heart was really happy and at the same time sad and hurt,” said Barrondo, who moments before had received a congratulatory phone call from the overjoyed Guatemalan President, Otto Perez Molina.
“I said that (sentence) because of the violence that was happening in my country; and I hoped that through my medal the young people would see that sport is something that can unite people and hearts, and that sport is a better thing to turn to than violence.”
The feted Olympic silver medallist is acutely aware that underage crime and violence are still a reality in his country. “There are children who do not enjoy their childhood, and who never believe that they can have or could have a different future.” he said.
But things have improved, and dramatically so in his eyes, since that historic day.
“Sport in Guatemala has changed lives and it is so beautiful to see. Every day, the streets are full of people running or people on bicycles.
“Really, after London 2012 the sports population in Guatemala grew, and every day there is more sport. It is an unstoppable virus in Guatemala, and every day it is more contagious.
“The more people there are running in the streets, the fewer criminals there are in the streets.”
It may come as little surprise to read that the passionate Barrondo, who entered London 2012 as the Pan-American Games 20km men’s race walk champion, is heavily involved in trying to continue to improve the outlook for children across Guatemala.
“My wife (Mirna Ortiz, who competed in the women’s 20km race walk at London 2012) and I run a race walking project for poor children,” he said. “We have faith in our people and that is why we fight for them.
“Now there are many children in love with race walking, many believing that like Erick Barrondo they can also change their life through sport. They dream of being in the Olympic Games.”Getty Images
Barrondo’s efforts have made an impact not just on young people in his country, but also on Guatemala’s indigenous population as a whole. Barrondo and his wife are of indigenous descent.
“Until a few years ago, it was believed that the indigenous could not amount to much; but nowadays they know that we have the same possibilities that everyone else has and some things that others do not have,” Barrondo said. “In sport, there is no discrimination.”The wide-smiling athlete remains a hugely popular and active figure in Guatemala’s sporting circles, and for him the Olympic Games are key in promoting the message that everyone is equal.
“The Olympic Games are important and necessary because they unite the world regardless of flags,” he said. “They are necessary because they are the window to show that the impossible can become possible. And also because they inspire the world to dream and because, through the story of sports, many people can change their lives.”
Now 27, Barrondo can scarcely believe what happened in London in 2012; not events on the sporting field, but what occurred afterwards, in the press tent.
“I had planned to win a medal, but what I said at that moment was just what my heart felt,” Barrondo explained. “I spoke with my heart so that it would reach the hearts of my people in Guatemala and in the world.”