Walking down London’s famous The Mall, Erick Barrondo’s head swiveled from side-to-side searching for his nearest opponent. As it turned out he was 30 seconds behind and the mixture of astonishment and ecstasy on the walker’s face revealed history in the making―Guatemala’s first Olympic medal.
The fact that it was silver was immaterial. In a sport-mad country where every weekend the roads are packed with pickups transporting entire soccer teams to games, to win a medal at the Olympics for the first time since they started competing in 1952 was an incredible achievement.
Although soccer remains the most popular sport in the country, the national team has yet to reach a World Cup final. After years of heartbreak, the population is looking to new sports to find their national hero and may have done so in the 21-year-old Barrondo. To show their patriotic fervor, local Olympic broadcaster Albavisión replayed the entire race twice just after the live one had finished.
Speaking to reporters after the end of the 20-kilometer race, Barrondo said, “It is well known that Guatemala has problems with guns and knives. It is a country that has suffered much, but that also has dreams. If somebody tomorrow changes a gun or a knife for a pair of shoes and begins to train for a sport, I would be the happiest person on earth”.
Born in Aldea Chuyuc, in the San Cristóbal Verapaz municipality, times were hard for the young Barrondo. Both of his parents were middle-distance runners, and when money was tight he had to use his mother’s running shoes to train. Violence was an everyday experience in the department of Alta Verapaz, one of the first contested by warring narcoterrorism factions when they made their entrance into Guatemala.
An injury forced Barrondo to reconsider middle and long distance running, so he took up walking and proved to be a natural. Making his competitive debut in the 2011 Pan American Race Walking Cup, Barrondo eased to silver and went one better in the Pan American Games getting gold. But his return to Guatemala was much less celebrated than his return from the Olympics.
There was a bus, a London open-top double decker, awaiting Barrondo after he flew back from London. President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxanna Baldetti greeted him at La Aurora international airport with a prize of Q500,000 ($64,000). Prior to leaving for England, Barrondo had bought his parents their first television so they could watch his performances. As an accounting student, it is likely that Barrondo can put that money to good use.
Greeting the medal with a tweet, Baldetti said “Erick Barrondo is an example of effort and courage. God bless him! The medal is a dream turned into reality.”
President Pérez Molina described the momentous occasion as, “an example of what can be achieved with perseverance.” To motivate himself to train, Barrondo had made a medal out of stone, the photo of which now adorns street vendors’ memorabilia along with phrases such as, “Not (Lionel) Messi, Not (Cristiano) Ronaldo, Barrondo.”
At a press conference soon after he arrived, Barrondo hailed the future of athletics. “Today a new history for Guatemala begins for the youth, and especially a firmer footing for sport,” said the silver medalist.
The president had offered to fly Barrondo’s parents to London to see their son compete in the 50-kilometer race but Cuban coach Rigoberto Medina declined the offer, wanting him to concentrate on his preparation.
As it turned out the second event didn’t have a fairy tale ending. Comfortable in third, Barrondo dropped to ninth after a surge by a pack of competitors. The Guatemalan responded and had got himself back into third before being disqualified at the 42 kilometer mark for inappropriate motion by bending his knees. The same fate befell fellow Guatemalan walker Daniel Quiyuch earlier in the race.
Not to be outdone by the government, Congress responded by passing an Erick Barrondo national day, one of the few things that the lawmakers have been able to agree upon since the new administration came to power in January. He will have another medal, the Orden del Soberano Congreso en grado de Gran Caballero or Sovereign Congressional Order at the rank of Grand Knight to add to his collection. Congressman Haroldo Quej said, “If there is a Sir Alex Ferguson in England (manager of soccer club Manchester United), why can’t there be a Knight Erick Barrondo in Guatemala?”
However, the reality for Barrondo is that his new found wealth and celebrity will make him a target for extortionists. Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla has already held talks with the Barrondo family over providing security to them as well as possibly moving from their current home.
Crossing the line in London changed Barrondo’s life forever. For better or worse, its effects will be felt not only by the athlete, but also by his proud country.