Why one athlete ditched the U.S. Olympic team to make history for another country.
One of Jordin Andrade’s earliest memories was watching his uncle Henry run in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Henry also played in the NFL briefly, but for 4-year-old Jordin, the Olympics was much more exciting. Because even though he was born in the U.S., Uncle Henry was one of four athletes on the first ever Olympic team from Cape Verde, a small island nation 300 miles off the west coast of Africa with a population of about 500,000 people. (It’s also known as the Republic of Cabo Verde.)
The Andrade family including Jordin’s father, Joe immigrated to the United States from Cape Verde in 1960, just two years before Uncle Henry was born. “This is an opportunity to represent me, my family, my people and my country,” Henry told the L.A. Times that year. “Cape Verde is so small and so poor. The place needs a lot of giving.”
“That was a big inspiration to me as a kid,” Jordin said in an interview with Idaho’s KTVB7. “‘Wow, my bloodline has some athletics.'”
It took Jordin Andrade until his junior year of high school to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, but he did.
During high school, he became passionate about track and field and enlisted his Uncle Henry as a training coach. After graduation, Andrade ran for a junior college in his native California before being recruited by Boise State, where he went on to top national rankings. He even set a school-wide record in the 400-meter hurdles during his senior year and ran a 49.24 at his last NCAA Championships that same year well below the Olympic qualifying time of 49.4.
Qualifying for the Olympics was one thing. But Andrade still had another hurdle to face: Which country should he run for?
“It was between what everybody wanted me to do and what I wanted to do,” he told South Coast Today. “Everyone I associate myself with is from the U.S. and they wanted me to represent.”
At the time, Andrade had never even visited his ancestral home in Cape Verde. But his mind was made up after visiting New Bedford, Massachusetts a small whaling town with a large Cape Verdean population. The trip gave him an opportunity to meet and connect with great-aunts and uncles and cousins he’d never met. Even the Cape Verdean Prime Minister Jos Maria Neves greeted him on one of his East Coast trips.
“When I first came out there, I wasnt expecting much,” Andrade told South Coast Today. “I ended up getting a big standing ovation and I met a lot of people with a lot of connections.”
“I chose Cape Verde because thats my family.”
Andrade set off for Rio in 2016 as a representative of Cape Verde, and in his very first race he … was disqualified before he finished.
It didn’t matter that he finished the race with a qualifying time of 49.35 seconds the judges claimed that he intentionally knocked over a hurdle in the last 50 meters, which was an automatic disqualification.
As you can imagine, Andrade was upset. And so was the entire country he was representing. “My phone hasn’t stopped ringing, everyone wanted an explanation that I couldn’t explain,” he told KTVB7. “I had to sit in my room watching the clock, and prep my body as if I was running the next day just in case.”
Cape Verde officials immediately filed an appeal, and what followed was eight tense hours of waiting and deliberation.
Eventually, the judges agreed to overturn their decision and reinstated Andrade as the sixth-place finisher in the race, making him the first Cape Verdean athlete ever to advance to the Olympic semifinals.
That might seem like a small feat compared to a gold medal. But that monumental moment was enough to make Cape Verdeans across the globe burst with pride:
While Andrade may not have advanced past the semifinals, he still achieved an incredible feat for himself, and for his entire heritage.
Sure, Andrade could have run for the United States. But instead, he became a champion who brought hope to an entire culture one that too often goes ignored.
“I’m really happy to represent a small country,” he said. “I want to give them a voice and make sure that whole world can hear them. I finally get the opportunity to.”