For many of the Colombians who left London proudly sporting Olympic medals, growing up amid armed conflict and violence was a far greater obstacle to overcome than international competition.
Catherine Ibarguen, who won silver in the triple jump, hails from Apartado in the country’s turbulent Uraba banana-growing region, which has a reputation for interminable violence that the 28-year-old says she hopes to help change.
“My childhood was full of happiness,” she said. “Through sports we can change Uraba.”
Ibarguen developed into a promising athlete in the region, but spent the past three years training in Puerto Rico on a government scholarship.
Not far from Apartado is Urrao, hometown of 25-year-old cycling road race silver medalist Rigoberto Uran.
Uran — who is currently competing in Spain — is the only one of eight medalists expected to miss a celebration of Colombia’s most successful Olympic team ever yesterday, hosted by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
Uran lost his father when he was aged 14 after far-right militiamen shot him dead, mistaking him, Uran’s mother, Ana, says, for a sympathizer of leftist rebels. It is not an uncommon fate where the cyclist hails from and Uran had to sell lottery tickets and wash cars to support his mother and younger sister.
His slain father, also named Rigoberto, had given the athlete his first bike and part of a US$6,600 government compensation payment for his father’s death helped the young Uran move to the regional capital of Medellin, where he was recruited by the “Orgullo Paisa” cycling team.
“From when he was little, the kid had the mentality of being a good person,” Ana Uran said.
Maria Isabel Urrutia, a weightlifting gold medalist at the 2000 Sydney Games, hopes her country’s pride in its athletes’ performance in London spurs others to rise above their disadvantages.
“We Colombian athletes typically come from the lowest ranks of society,” she said.
Cliched as it is, sporting success is definitely a path to advancement in Colombia.
It worked for 26-year-old Yuri Alvear, who won bronze in the 70kg judo event in London. Alvear did not have a house, so authorities in his hometown of Jamundi — a town south of Cali better known for drug trafficking than martial arts — decided to give him one. When he arrived back last week, the mayor signed over a three-story, five-room furnished condominium with a shared swimming pool.
There are also plans to build a statue in front of Jamundi’s stadium in his honor.
“Every time a kid walks past that monument, he’s going to think about following the good example and above all consider sports as an alternative in life,” Jamundi Mayor Fredy Pimental said.