Picture by Guillaume Horcajuelo

Who is Orlando Ortega? And why he is the athlete to watch in 110m hurdles at Tokyo 2020 for Spain?

The Cuban-born hurdler is in a group of talented athletes who are all pushing for glory at the Olympics in Japan in 2021.
By Ed Knowles

Orlando Ortega is an Olympic silver medallist who competes in the athletics event – the 110m hurdles. He was born in Cuba but represents Spain internationally.

Along with the USA’s Grant Holloway, Ortega is looking to push the boundaries of what is possible in the event with a potential world record threat.

Holloway managed to tear up a 27-year-old indoors record in the 60m hurdles in February 2021.

Ortega is currently recovering from a foot injury and couldn’t race against Holloway.

The 29-year-old believes his recovery is going well and is hopeful for a return to form for the Olympics.

It means that the event promises to be one of the most fascinating races of Tokyo 2020.

Ortega’s route to his second Olympics includes a defection from Cuba during an international competition, a struggle to qualify for Rio 2016 due to off the track matters, and a mad dash cab ride to make the medal ceremony for the world championships in Doha.

Orlando Ortega competes at the World Athletics Championships in 2019
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Orlando Ortega: Early success and Cuba defection

Ortega was born in Artemisa, Cuba. As a youngster he competed for his country of birth.

He acquired true international recognition with a third-placed finish in the 110m hurdles at the 2011 Pan American Games.

He was widely thought to be the heir to fellow Cuban Dayron Robles who took the title that day.

Two years later, during the 2013 World Athletics Championships in Moscow, Ortega decided to defect from Cuba.

“It was an extremely difficult and tough decision, but I made it and I won’t look back,” said Ortega at the time to Associated Press.

Orlando Ortega: Rio 2016

Initially, the rules from World Athletics meant Ortega’s switch to Spain ruled him out of Rio 2016.

After some negotiations, he was eventually allowed to compete at the Olympics.

He performed very well and took home an Olympic silver medal behind Jamaica’s Omar McLeod.

The win ended the country’s 12-year run with an Olympic medal in athletics.

Spain went on to take a further Olympic medal in athletics in Brazil.

High jumper Ruth Beitia won a surprise gold medal aged 37.

Orlando Ortega was awarded a bronze medal after an appeal at the World Athletics Championships in 2019
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Orlando Ortega: 2019 World Championships

Orlando was hoping to better his seventh-placed finish at the 2017 World Championships two years later in Doha.

He reached the final and made a solid start to the race.

Grant Holloway was in front and Ortega was in a tightly packed group behind.

Omar McLeod fell into Ortega’s lane and it left him in visible shock with his fifth-placed overall finish.

An initial appeal by the Spanish federation was dismissed.

But, in the final moments, it was agreed that Ortega would be awarded a bronze medal.

According to ESPN, it was so late that he just made it to the stadium in time for the presentation.

"My federation called me and said, `Throw your clothes on and come to the stadium really fast,'" Ortega recounted. "I was like, `What happened?' They said, `You have the bronze medal.'

"I took a taxi and I said, `Please drive very fast. I have a medal ceremony.'"

Orlando Ortega: Tokyo 2020

Ortega has been struggling with a foot injury in 2021 but remains one of the big threats for the podium at Tokyo 2020.

“I'm not even 90 percent yet, but I feel good,” he said to MARCA.

“After five weeks off I started training again and we go step by step. Recovering and wanting to train every day.”

He plans to run in the Diamond League events in the build-up to the Olympics.

“For me, [the men’s 100m hurdles] is at the moment the most competitive event in sprint event in the world.

“We are a group of athletes where anyone can win. The medals will be difficult to acquire.”