by Ethan Adelman
August 14, 1996
Despite the United State's unparalleled success in the summer Olympics, the heroes of Atlanta will soon fade away into the heap of past Olympic athletes. Although millions looked on with a smile as medals were dispensed and the national anthem was repeatedly played, the average American's interest in Olympic glory will die out before next season's sitcom lineup is announced.
For Ecuadorians however, the achievements of a 22 year-old speed-walker from Cuenca will receive top billing for some time to come. On July 26, Jefferson Perez walked into the Ecuadorian history books by winning the gold medal in the 20 km speed-walking marathon and becoming Ecuador's first Olympic medalist. It seemed as if all of Ecuador was glued to a television set on the morning of the 26th, when he quickly strolled by a German before crossing the finish line in the Olympic stadium. Afterwards car horns blared, flags waved and businessmen walking to work seemed to have a little more pep in their step. That afternoon, most businesses closed down for the short period while Perez received his medal and everyone sang along with the Ecuadorian anthem.
"The courage and fatigue of Perez represents the heart of his country, his family and his friends," wrote sportswriter José Navarro Guzmán. But Ecuadorians were not the only country to take pride in the achievements of Perez, who was the only Latin American gold medalist.
"The gold medal in speedwalking is for all of Latin America," said Perez, "We Latin Americans are not on top, but we have very strong hearts and many times that compensates for our physical limitations."
Unlike the experience of other athletes, whose glory peaks at the medal ceremony, the excitement surrounding Jefferson Perez has steadily increased since his return to Ecuador. The popularity of this young athlete, as well as the incredible amount of gifts he has received, have dramatically changed his life.
From the government of President Sixto Duran Ballen, Perez received the title of national hero, a medal of merit, a stamp in his honor and a lifetime pension worth 200 million sucres. Ecuadorian banks and corporations have given him another 200 million. In addition to a new Mazda 323 from a TV station, innumerable tickets and vacation packages from travel agencies and a lifetime supply of Toni yogurt, Perez has also been offered a new house in Cuenca.
For his mother, a devout Catholic who has been blind since his birth, both the Metropolitan Hospital of Quito and the Optomology Center of Quito have offered to perform operations on her eyes. In performances of a different sort, a well known Salsa band has begun touring the country giving concerts in his honor, popular singer Wilfrido Vargas has written a chart topping hit about his victory and poet Washington Medina has composed a poem entitled "Glory y Honor".
Despite all the attention, Perez insists that he is the same guy he was before. "In all honesty, I want my name to remain the same, without sur-names and nicknames , my name is simply Jefferson Perez, nothing else." Nontheless, Perez has done little to diminish the mythic status he achieved in Atlanta. He claims that he received a sign from God telling him to walk from the Church of San Francisco in Quito to the Cathedral of Cuenca, nearly 500 km away."This promise that I have made will be harder than the Olympic competition. I'm going to hurt a lot, I'm going to be very tired, I'm going to be very drained, thirsty."
Perez has captured the hearts and imaginations of Ecuadorians, making his every word a powerful statement and his image a valuable commodity. The second most important person at the inauguration of recently elected President, Abdala Bucaram Ortiz, seemed to be Perez, who attracted cameras like a magnet. Although the extraordinary popularity of Perez may seem bizarre in the context of American culture, he is truly an Olympic hero if there ever was one. In him, a small country can feel like a giant, making a god out of a 22 year old man.
"Reviving the spirit of the Greek gods and ancient Olympics," wrote sportswriter Juan Carlos Faldutti, "Jefferson Perez, wearing only a small shirt, blue pants and white socks, covered the distance of 20km in 1 hour, 20 minutes and 7 seconds, earning the gold medal and taking his place as a sacred immortal, like the gods."