August 18, 2008 is a date many Panamanians will never forget. At exactly 9:50 a.m. (-5 GMT) a young man from Colon City leaped to world glory and fame forever. His name is Irving Jahir Saladino Aranda and yesterday he won the first gold Olympic medal for Panama.
The 25-year-old world champion made his decisive leap in the fourth round with a jump of 8.34 meters, well below his season’s best but enough to earn him hero status at home. “This is a dream come true, it has been a long time coming,” he told reporters.
Saladino said he was suffering with a pain in his leg throughout a competition that never really came alive, but said all that mattered was the gold medal.
Panama had waited a long time for another Olympic medal. The last time Panama was awarded an Olympic medal was in 1948 when Lloyd Barrington LaBeach (1924-1999), achieved two bronze medals after winning the 100 and 200 meter sprint.
On Monday morning the air was electrified. People very early gathered in front of Televisora Nacional (a local television company) to view in a gigantic LED screen, the sporting events being held in Beijing, China. Others were fixed in front of their TV or radio sets to follow Saladino’s jumps. When the gold medal was finally won, after a couple of foul jumps, the country went bananas. The 60-year-old Olympic drought was finally over. Panama had won a gold medal.
Who is Irving Saladino? He was born in Colon (a small city on the Atlantic Coast) on January 23, 1983. His first interest was playing baseball, since he was a great fan of the New York Yankees. Later he decided to switch to track and field which was practiced by his older brother. It was then that his talent in the long jump was discovered. “I liked playing baseball at the time, then my brother introduced me to athletics. I started to enjoy it … and here I am,” he said.
Saladino’s parents describe him as being a very quiet and shy person. He enjoys surfing the Internet and watching movies. His girlfriend is Brazilian long jumper/triple jumper Keila Costa.
Shortly after the 2004 Olympics, Saladino contacted Nelio Moura, who began coaching him at the IAAF High Performance Training Center in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Moura’s dedicated guidance and support was great for Saladino’s performance.
At the 2006 AAF World Indoor Championships he finished second with a new South American indoor record of 8.29 meters. In 2006 he won five (Oslo, Rome, Zurich, Brussel, Berlin) out of six Golden League events in the same season. His only defeat was in Paris where he was second. With 8.56 meters achieved in May 2006 he became the South American record holder.
In 2007 he won a gold medal at the Pan American Games held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and another gold medal at the Worlds Championship Games held in Osaka, Japan. In 2008 he won an additional gold medal at the FBK Games in Hengelo, Netherlands. There’s no doubt this dedicated Panamanian athlete has the golden touch.
“I’m just waiting to get to Panama—to see if it’s going to be a wild party,” the 25-year-old said. “To be an Olympic champion is much better than being a world champion. The truth is it’s a medal I really had to fight for.”
After partying in Panama, Saladino plans to start training for the London Olympic Summer Games, which he said would be his last. “I’ll stay in Brazil until London 2012, then end my career with that,” he said.
As Monday came to a close, I went to sleep feeling proud of being a Panamanian and thanking Saladino for what he did. Athletes like Roberto “Rocky” Duran, Mariano Rivera and Irving Saladino have placed Panama in the international spotlight. We are most grateful.