By Gustavo Borges.
Brazilian gymnast Artur Nabarrete Zanetti, the last gymnast to compete, pulled off an almost perfect high-flying routine on the men's rings, then held his breath until the judges announced his winning score.
It was the 500th medal that Latin America has racked up in the history of the Olympics, having played a particularly stellar role in the London Games with medal-winning performances by nine countries of the region led by Cuba with five gold medals, three silver and six bronze.
Though they didn't come close to their greatest exploits, the Cubans won three more Olympic medals than in the 2008 Beijing Games, and best of all, they did it in four different sports - boxing with flyweight Robeisy Ramirez and light welterweight Roniel Iglesias, Mijain Lopez in wrestling, Idalis Ortiz in judo and Leuris Pupo in rapid fire pistol.
It was enough to outshine a Brazil that won three medals more than the Cubans but faltered in the men's soccer and volleyball finals, and in doing so ceded its Latin American leadership. Besides Nabarrete Zanetti's gold, Brazil was at its best in the gold-medal performances of judoka Sarah Meneses and the women's volleyball team.
Latin America began its medal-winning ways in London just hours after the inauguration ceremony when Colombia's Carlos Oquendo surprised by taking the silver in a the men's BMX cycling final, giving notice of what to expect from the South American country, which had its best showing in history by a wide margin.
Mariana Pajon competing in women's BMX cycling gave Colombia its only gold medal to add to its three silver and four bronze. Even Colombians didn't expect their country to win eight medals, especially noteworthy because they were in six different sports - cycling, track and field, taekwondo, wrestling, weightlifting and judo.
Another nation that shone in London was Mexico, not only because it downed powerhouse Brazil in the soccer final, but also because for the first time in history it won seven medals away from its home turf - one gold, three silver and three bronze, with its divers leading the way with two silver and one bronze, followed by the archers with one silver and a bronze.
Even so the Mexicans left with a bad taste in their mouth because the defending Olympic champion in taekwondo, Maria Espinoza, lost in the second round, even though, they say, the video showed she had won. A gold for Espinoza would have put her country in 30th place, but the fighter was left with the bronze and the Mexicans dropped to 39th.
Latin Americans took 58 medals in London while losing a considerable number of close finishes, which paves the way for the 2016 Games in Rio, where all will be in their favor, as the region's home teams and if they continue to improve, to win as many as 100 medals. EFE