Ecuador had never won a single medal in any event at the Olympic Games, but going into Atlanta the country’s sports fans knew they had someone who was capable of changing that statistic.
Jefferson Pérez had taken up race-walking by accident. At school, he had been made to take part in a competitive walk in his physical education class. Pérez and his brother Fabián trained for a week, and at the end of it Pérez won the race. His natural ability was noted and was quickly fast-tracked into the Ecuadorian national team.
Initially, he began competing in 5km races but soon moved up to the 20km distance, which was to become his speciality. At the age of 16, he won a bronze medal at the 1990 Junior World Athletics Cup in Bulgaria. Two years after that came a junior world title, and over the next few years he gradually made the step up to establish himself among race-walking’s senior elite.
He made his Olympic debut in Barcelona in 1992, but was still too young and inexperienced to make a real mark, and did not finish the 20km. However, by 1996, Pérez was firmly established among the best in the world. That said his preparations for Atlanta were far from ideal. He had produced an indifferent display at the previous year's World Championships, so it was something of a surprise to see him among the leading pack in the race's opening stages. The leaders stayed together for kilometre after kilometre, with nobody managing to conjure a successful breakaway. Nobody, that is, until Pérez moved clear with just a single kilometre left to go. He opened up a gap of 30 metres over the Russian Ilya Markov and was still comfortably ahead as the leading walkers entered the stadium.
Despite Markov’s best efforts to close the gap, Pérez was continuing to increase it. The Ecuadorian crossed the line with a lead of nine seconds.
He was jubilant in victory, and his joy was shared by the whole of his country. He returned home to an extraordinary hero’s welcome befitting Ecuador’s first Olympic champion. His response was even more extraordinary. Rather than rest on his laurels, Pérez embarked on an epic walk to mark his achievement, spending making his way on foot from the capital Quito to his home town of Cuenca, a march of 460km that took him 17 days.
He competed in the following two editions of the Olympic Games, coming fourth on both occasions. However, his perseverance paid off, as at Beijing 2008, now aged 34, he returned to the podium, this time taking silver, to double both his own and Ecuador’s Olympic medal tally. He remains his country’s only Olympic medallist.