When Jefferson Perez became Ecuador’s first Olympic gold medallist in 1996, he was given a life supply of yoghurt in appreciation of his victory.
He is yet to learn the rewards for becoming their first World champion, but at this time that matters little. He has reward enough, the first gold medal of these Paris 2003 Saint-Denis championships and a world best. Who needs more?
Perez did not even expect to win, so to shave a second off the world best came as a huge surprise and he paid credit to the man whose record he broke. “Francisco Javier Fernandez made it very hard for me,” he admitted.
“He made the pace from an early stage and I was just trying to maintain my momentum. I was certainly not thinking about the world record at that stage. In fact I did not even think I would win so I can not tell you how happy I feel. I am so tired, but so happy.
“I have so much respect for Fernandez, and without him making it so hard for me I would not have broken the world best.”
Perez, a 29-year-old business management graduate, has been concentrating on high mileage in training and it paid off as his strength told in the closing stages. Fernandez led for more than three quarters of the race, but Perez then came into his own after taking the lead at 17km. But then, distance is no problem to the 1999 silver medallist.
After his Olympic success he walked close to 300 miles as a religious gesture and his continuing quest for medals has made him a hero back home. He has done it all now – Olympic and world titles, the World Cup, three South American Cup wins and now a world best, but he remains humble.
He says: “This victory means so much to the people of my country. We have poverty, we have starvation, but success in sport can lift people’s spirits. It is the most important thing in many people’s lives.
“It was a very difficult course, and the fast pace made it harder, but when you have people back home desperate for you to win you have to work through the tiredness and the pain.”
Perez first made a name for himself when winning the World junior 10km title in 1992 and he has since posted so many top performances he had a stamp with his face on. Right now, that face bears a huge smile, although it disappeared briefly when asked his views about the possible removal of the walks from future Olympic timetables.
He says. “One of the first things a human being does is walk so to take it away from the Olympic programme would be wrong.”
(ED. Note - IAAF Council meeting on 28 August decided to award Robert Korzeniowski and Jeffereson Perez (ECU) $100,000 in recognition of their respective World Best Performances in the 50km Walk and 20km Walk, respectively, even though their performances will not officially be recognised as World Records until 1 January 2004, as a gesture of Fair Play towards these two outstanding athletes).