Twenty-one years ago today, more than half of all Ecuadorians were in front of their televisions cheering on Cuenca’s Jefferson Perez when he crossed the finish line in Atlanta, winning the 20-kilometer Olympic race walk. His Olympic gold medal is the only one ever won by an Ecuadorian athlete.
In 2012, in his final competition, Perez took the silver medal in the Beijing Olympics. Many believed he should have won gold again as the winner by 14 seconds, Russia’s Valeriy Borchin, was suspected of doping and had recently come off a 12-month suspension for using illegal stimulants.
In addition to his Olympic medals, Perez won three world championships, including a dramatic come from behind victory at the IAAF championships in Osaka, Japan in 2007. He holds the world record for the 20K at 1 hour, 17 minutes, 21 seconds. He also won five gold medals at the Pan American Games.
As a child, Perez helped support his family by shining shoes in Cuenca’s Parque Calderon. He had no thoughts of athletic competition in high school when his coaches noticed his talent during physical education exams. “My only interest then was to help my family financially,” he says. “We were very poor and my intention was to get a job as soon as possible to offer support.”
Among those who worked to develop his race walking talent was Richard Boroto, former director of the Abraham Lincoln Center in Cuenca. Boroto had come to Ecuador in the 1960s with the U.S. Peace Corps to help develop an athletic program. Perez’s and Boroto’s athletic legacy is visible in Cuenca parks and streets today, as dozens of athletes practice race walking.
When Perez returned to Cuenca following his 1996 Olympic victory, 50,000 people turned out to meet him in Parque Calderon. President Abdala Bucaram was on hand to declare him Ecuador’s first National Sports Hero, an award quickly ratified by the Ecuadorian congress.
Following Perez’s 2012 second place finish in Beijing, 20,000 came out to greet him on his return. Click here to read the story.
To see the video of Perez’s 1996 gold medal race in Atlanta, click here.