RIO DE JANEIRO - Few athletes, not even Usain Bolt, have filled out Olympic stadiums over the past fortnight but pocket-rocket Mariana Pajon did just that on Friday as hordes of Colombians roared her to a second successive BMX gold.
On a humpy ribbon of green and red cement at Rio’s X Park and with a sea of yellow-shirted compatriots providing a backdrop, she delivered a masterclass to match her London feat.
The 24-year-old, reveling in the south-American sunshine, appeared to be riding an easier course to her medal rivals - flowing over the jumps with graceful precision while others pedaled frantically to stay on her tail.
Alise Post of the United States and Venezuela’s Stefany Hernandez followed her home but Pajon was in a league of her own.
Pajon, a national treasure in Colombia where the local track in Medellin is named after her, celebrated by lifting her bike above her head and beaming her smile.
Despite standing just 1.58m and weighing 50 kilos, Pajon has proved herself a tough cookie, staying at the top of a sport where the all too regular crashes make you wince.
Asked what fuels her, Pajon’s answer was at faultless as her riding on Friday when she won all three of her semi-final runs with ease on the way to the eight-rider medal showdown.
“Sacrifice and hard work,” she said told a news conference gate-crashed by a gaggle of fans in replica black Mariana Pajon tops with her race number, 100, emblazoned on the back.
“And smiles. I think smiling and happiness is the best doping you can have.”
Pajon’s London win has spawned BMX circuits across Colombia’s cities where youngsters are now as keen to emulate Pajon as soccer stars like James Rodriguez.
David Rodriguez, who traveled from Bogota with his mother to watch Pajon go for gold, summed up the mood as he joined in the salsa party shaking the temporary tribunes.
“This is an amazing moment for me, I was in London 2012 and that was great and now again!” he said. “She’s an amazing girl. She has so much courage. She is a winner!
“It’s perfect today.”
Pajon, world champion this year as she was in 2011 and 2014, became only the second Colombian ever to win an Olympic gold medal in London. She said a repeat was even sweeter.
“The first medal was incredible, but the second medal was more emotional,” she told reporters.
“Because it was in Brazil. This feel like a medal for all south Americans. I’m so proud.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Nina Chestney and Ed Osmond