Jefferson Perez – Reaching for Olympic Gold

Ecuadorian track and field athlete, Jefferson Perez, did his country proud when he won Ecuador’s first Olympic medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics for race-walking. Proving that he was not just a “one-hit wonder”, Perez went on to set a record in his specialty of the 20 kilometer race-walk at the 2003 World Championships in Paris, followed by a gold medal in Helsinki in 2005 and another in Osaka in 2007. He also clinched fourth place finishes at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and the Athens Olympics in 2004, and has qualified to compete at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Jefferson Perez was born in the neighborhood of El Vecino in Cuenca, Ecuador on 1 July 1974. Perez discovered his talent for race-walking during a high school physical education exam. Together with his brother, Fabian, he trained with a group of athletes under the guidance of Luis Munoz. Recognizing that Jefferson Perez had talent, Munoz entered him in a race, which he won, resulting in him being chosen to represent Ecuador as a sport ambassador in New York and London. This set him on the international road to race-walking success.

Race-walking is a long distance athletics event which, although having the same objective as a running race – that of getting from point A to point B in the shortest possible time – is quite different from running. According to the rules for race-walking, one foot must be in contact with the ground at all times, meaning that the athlete’s back toe may not leave the ground before the heel of the front foot has touched the ground. Should the athlete fail to maintain contact with the ground, it is known as “lifting”, which is a violation of the rules. Moreover, the supporting leg must straighten from the point of ground contact, until the body passes over it. The race takes place on a track for simplification of judging and different cards are raised to indicate to competitors when they are in violation of a rule. Judging is done by the human eye, which has at times caused controversy due to the fact that a millisecond “lift” may not be detected by a judge.

Despite what may seem to be very restrictive rules, race-walkers reach cadence rates, or steps per minute, comparable to an Olympic 400-meter runner. However, race-walkers need to keep this pace going for hours to complete the Olympic distances of 20 kilometers and 50 kilometers – certainly no small accomplishment!

With the 2008 Beijing Olympics just around the corner, no doubt Jefferson Perez is receiving plenty of support from his fellow Ecuadorians as he prepares to go for gold.