Perez strides into the history books

The unglamorous 20km walk is no mean feat, says Ken Jones
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The Independent Online
At approximately 9.30am yesterday a man wearing blue underwear, a white cap and the pained expression of a commuter late for his train hurried into the Olympic stadium. A cheer went up.

After vigorous perambulation around a neighbourhood of Atlanta into which it is inadvisable to venture after dark, Jefferson Perez, of Ecuador, was just 100 metres from becoming the first gold medallist in athletics at the 1996 Games, the first in his country's history.

To most, the 20-kilometre walk is an event of gripping inconsequence. However, as there was little else taking place at this early stage of proceedings, Perez's progress to the finish was greeted with considerable enthusiasm along with sympathy for Rishat Shafikov, who staggered home in fifth place after threatening to win from the front.

In the Barcelona Olympics and the World Championships held last year in Gothenburg, there were indications of farce when numerous walkers were shown red cards for infringing the regulation that requires competitors to have part of one foot in contact with the ground at all times. Eagle- eyed judges posted along the route here apparently saw nothing to suggest that the crime of "lifting" was being committed because the race passed without controversial incident.

Watching it unfold on a large television screen, the audience saw Shafikov build up a handy lead by halfway and if there had been betting on the event the Russian's price would by then have shortened considerably.

If walking figures prominently in debates over what constitutes a sport, nobody can deny that the technical demands are gruelling. None of the early finishers were composed when they crossed the line, all in fact collapsing into the arms of waiting officials.

In accordance with the strategy devised by his coach and showing perfect adaptation to terrain that took the competitors beneath freeway bridges in an atmosphere of exhaust fumes, Perez came out of nowhere.

By halfway Shafikov appeared comfortable in holding off a chasing group led by Nick A'Hern, an Australian hairdresser who superstitiously shaves his legs before races. This is hardly the image held about Australian males but A'Hern is burly enough to discourage insinuation.

Picking up the pace alongside A'Hern were two other challengers, Ilya Markov, of Russia, and a lithe Mexican walker, Bernardo Segura, who was thought capable of living up to his country's reputation in the event. All were handily placed at the 15km mark and Perez looked greatly encouraged when glancing at his wristwatch.

Refusing proffered sustenance, the 22-year-old Ecuadorian began to make his move and Shafikov was soon glancing anxiously over his shoulder.

As there were few experts present it was difficult to get a line on form, but obviously rather more had been expected from Michele Didoni, the 21- year-old world champion, than he was showing in the heat of Atlanta. The effect of conditions on another who would have been short in any betting, Mikhail Shchennikov of Russia, was not known either, but he could not better seventh place.

Placed only 33rd in last year's World Championships, few took Perez seriously. A bronze medal would have been enough to gain Perez heroic status in his homeland, bettering Ecuador's previous best showing, a fourth place by the swimmer Jorge Delgado at the 1972 Games in Munich. Gold was more than he imagined. "I can't believe it," he said after heading off Markov by nine seconds. Nor could his rivals.