While Colombia doesn’t have a long history of success in the Olympics, the 2012 competition in London was its best showing ever. The national team won eight medals — including a gold by Mariana Pajón in women’s BMX — to nearly double the 11 total medals collected up to that point.
With Colombia sending 147 athletes to the Rio Olympics, this year’s games offer an opportunity for similar success. Track-and-field star Caterine Ibargüen is the odds on favorite to win the nation its third gold ever, and Pajón is as good as anybody on a bike. The national football team, while unlikely to win, will also capture the entire country’s attention each time it plays.
As the games begin, we offer a breakdown of some of the most notable Colombian athletes heading to Brazil.
Colombia’s best hope at a gold medal comes from triple jump savant Caterine Ibargüen. She did her country proud by bringing home the silver medal in the 2012 London Olympics, impressing the track-and-field world only a few years after she began concentrating on the event. Previously, Ibargüen made her name as a high jumper and represented Colombia in the 2004 Greece games. Her rise was short-lived, however. After a disappointing 16th place finish in Athens — followed by a heartbreaking failure to qualify for the 2008 Olympics —her was at a career crossroads.
Those high-jump failings turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to her. After missing out on Beijing, she was searching for something new. What she found — the triple jump — has turned her into a legend. Since taking the silver in London, Ibargúen has dominated all competitions. She went on a three-year unbeaten streak in the top-tier Diamond League circuit while finishing first in the World Championships in both 2013 and 2015, the Continental Cup in 2014, and the Pan American Games in 2015.
At this point, it looks like there is nobody in the world who can out-jump the 32-year-old from Apartadó, Antioquia. If Ibargüen performs like she is capable of in Brazil, the whole world will see a Colombian stand atop the platform with a medal to match her golden smile.
The men’s team of Colombian youngsters were a late qualifier for Rio, winning a playoff matchup with the United States to make the list of 16 squads that will compete for gold. This is the country’s first Olympic appearance since 1992, and a friendly draw in the group stage — facing off against Sweden, Nigeria, and Japan — should improve their chances to advance to the knockout round.
Colombia’s hopes will be lifted by the presence of the 31-year-old Teófilo Gutiérrez, who helped the senior national team make its run to the quarterfinals in the 2014 World Cup. While the Olympics have become a competition for those 23 and younger, Teó will be one of the three older players allowed on each team and headline a roster featuring Sebastián Pérez, Felipe Aguilar, Miguel Borja, among others. Young stars Marlos Moreno and Roger Martínez were unfortunately ruled out due to commitments to their club teams.
The Colombian women’s team will seek glory on the pitch. Its chances are a lot slimmer than the men given a brutal group draw that pits them against the United States, France, and New Zealand. But playing on such a stage is an accomplishment in and of itself for this team, and star midfielder Catalina Usme will ensure the team plays tough.
Colombians have been rising in the cycling world for the past few years, and 15 bike riders will try to medal in Brazil. Bogotá’s Esteban Chaves and Sergio Henao of Rionegro lead the road racers, while Mariana Pajón will defend her BMX gold from London. Now just 24, the paisa prodigy — and 2012 Colombian flag bearer — beat everyone as a 20-year-old, and has taken gold at two of the past three World Championship events. Carlos Oquendo, who took the men’s BMX bronze in the 2012 Olympics, will also compete again in Rio.
The 33-year-old Óscar Figueroa of Zaragoza, Antioquia, won the silver medal in London and heads to his third Olympics to headline a roster of eight Colombian weightlifters in Brazil. The women’s side includes Ubaldina Valoyes and Leydi Solís, who won a combined four golds in the 2014 Pan American Sports Festival competition that highlights some of the sport’s rising talent.
Cali-born Jackeline Rentería heads to her third straight Olympics with visions of improving upon her impressive showings of years’ past. She won back-to-back bronze medals in the 55-kilogram freestyle category in London and Beijing and now aims for gold. Yuri Alvear, also of Valle del Cauca, has similar hopes. The 2012 bronze winner in judo has been winning international competitions dating back to 2007 and will try to get make Rio her biggest victory yet.
The four person Colombian team will literally shoot for gold in Rio. The best odds for a good showing go to Ana María Rendon of Medellín. The paisa archer appeared in London and won silver in last summer’s Pan American Games in Toronto, where she also led her country to a second place finish in the team standings.