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Guevara Streaks to Victory in 400

A landmark effort in world championships reaffirms her status as one of Mexico's most popular figures.

August 28, 2003|Randy Harvey | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Mexico's Ana Guevara had barely stepped off the track Wednesday night at Stade de France when someone handed her a cell phone. On the other end was Mexico's president, Vicente Fox, who had called to congratulate her.

Nearby, Cesar Moreno Bravo, a Mexican member of the International Assn. of Athletics Federations Council, said Fox knows it can only help him politically to be associated with Guevara and that they often are photographed together.

Moreno laughed. "People ask, 'Who is that with Ana?' "

Guevara, 26, made history Wednesday night, becoming the first Mexican female track and field athlete to win a gold medal in a major international competition with her victory in the 400 meters at the world championships.

She won in 48.89 seconds, the fastest any woman has run since the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, to extend her winning streak to 20, 22 or 24, depending on the source. It is a fact that she has not lost in the 400 since finishing third in the world championships two years ago in Edmonton, Canada.

She had gotten Mexican sports fans' attention with her fifth-place finish in Atlanta, but it was the bronze medal in Edmonton that convinced them she was for real. Since then, she has become as popular as any athlete in Mexico.

"Adrian Fernandez?" Moreno said of the Formula One driver. "He is very popular, but he is not Ana."

"Eduardo Najera?" he said of the NBA player. "He is very popular, but he is not Ana."

He probably would have had to start naming the country's legendary soccer players, such as Hugo Sanchez, or boxers, such as Julio Cesar Chavez, before he came to athletes who are more popular than Guevara.

"We decided to put on a track meet in May in Mexico City with Ana," said her Dutch-based manager, Jos Hermans. "In three months, we had over a million dollars in sponsorships."

The meet attracted more than 50,000 fans, the most for a track and field meet in Mexico City since the 1968 Summer Olympics.

"Now we're going to have the meet every May," Hermans said.

Perhaps more significant for the future of Mexican sports, Moreno said, is that Guevara is changing the country's regard for women athletes. They were discouraged in the past because of an attitude that sports are unfeminine. Even today, jokes are common in Mexico about Guevara's muscular physique.

"There are no official restrictions [against women in sports]," Moreno said. "But there are, underlying, some jealousies from many men because she's more popular and has better performances than any male athlete."

But he said he is hearing less from them and more from parents who are seeking training centers for their daughters.

Success for other women athletes won't come overnight.

"It will take some time, a long time," Moreno said. "There is one Olympic training center for Mexico City, a city of 20 million people."

Guevara, who is from Nogales, splits her training time between the center in Mexico City and a more isolated location in Hermosillo. If she is burdened by the expectations of her as either an athlete or role model, she doesn't allow it to affect her performance. If anything, she seems to thrive on it.

She will be the overwhelming favorite, barring injury, to win the 400 in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

Australia's Cathy Freeman, who won the gold medal in the event in Sydney in 2000, was waiting underneath the stadium for Guevara when Jamaica's Lorraine Fenton stopped to talk. Fenton finished second Wednesday night in 49.43.

"It's difficult," Fenton said when Freeman asked her what it was like to run against Guevara. "I'd rather run against Cathy Freeman any time."

Freeman laughed. She knows as well as anyone what it's like to run against Guevara. It was after Freeman's devastating loss to Guevara in Mexico City in a 300-meter race in May that the Australian decided to retire.

"We all expect her to win next year," Freeman said.

Guevara knows that.

"This is the result of years of work and dreams in my mind," she said. "My country will be very happy. I'm compared with all the big people of the other sports, the boxing people, the baseball people, the football people.

"This is big motivation to work and continue. I have to continue."

She interrupted herself and smiled.

"There is no space in my mind to think about it," she said. "I have to enjoy this."

She has the next 12 months before the Athens Games for self-motivation speeches.

"She has the prestige of Mexico on her shoulders," Moreno said.

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