QUITO (Reuters) - From selling newspapers on the streets to help his family make ends meet, Jefferson Perez grew up to become a world and Olympic champion walker and a hero in Ecuador.
The soft-spoken Perez, who grew up in a poor barrio of the mountain town of Cuenca, is considered Ecuador’s greatest athlete in a country where sport is dominated by football.
He was featured on a postage stamp and commemorative coin in honor of his 1996 Olympic gold in Atlanta and is often invited for lunch with the president.
The lanky, 33-year-old Perez, the only Ecuadorian to have won an Olympic medal, is training for the Beijing Games in what could be his last competition.
After finishing fourth in the last two Olympics, Perez is back on top of his game, winning his third world championship for the 20-km walk last year in Japan.
“I believe above everything else that this is a sport of great suffering, a sport in which the winner is the one willing to suffer the most,” Perez told Reuters.
“I love this sport...to be able to overcome my weaknesses.”
Hernan Astudillo, the sports editor of Cuenca’s El Mercurio daily, calls the walker “a national star set to win what will be his last glory.”
Perez is one of only 25 Ecuadorean athletes who will participate in August’s Beijing Olympics. Many of them lack funding from national athletic federations struggling to keep afloat.
“I think we should respect the cosmic energies and do what is in our reach,” said Perez. “I do what is in my reach.”
Perez, whose mother supported the family by selling vegetables on the streets, started training in athletics in order to pass a routine physical education examination in the eighth grade.
“I was a student who liked other subjects more than gym class,” said Perez, one of five children. “When I started doing sports I never thought of being world champion, my priority was to pass the physical education exam in order to get through the school year.”
Just shy of a medal in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and under mounting pressure at home, Perez left the sport for a year and said he would retire.
The decision was short-lived. He has since won top world races and is one of the favorites to win gold in Beijing.
“I will continue while I still have love for the sport,” Perez said. “I don’t have a date to retire, not now.”
Writing by Alonso Soto, Editing by Clare Fallon