Could this be the year when the Philippines finally quenches an Olympic thirst that has lasted for 94 years?
The country’s top sports officials in Philippine Sports Commission chairman William “Butch” Ramirez and Philippine Olympic Committee president Rep. Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino think so.
“Naniniwala akong may medalya tayo sa Tokyo Olympics. Malamang meron tayong gold, silver at bronze medal kasi mayron din tayong mga baguhan na puwedeng gumawa ng surprises,” said Ramirez.
The two-time PSC chief thanked all the athletes for their sacrifices and dedication to reach their dream of becoming an Olympian, which according to him is not an overnight success.
“I’m so excited for the result of the hard work of the athletes, coaches, and NSAs on this journey to Tokyo Olympics in this pandemic. ‘Yung makarating ka lang ng Olympics, parang nanalo ka na rin ng gold. It’s priceless to be in an international competition lalo na sa Olympics,” said Ramirez.
He also said that preparing for the Olympics is not a one-year affair. He explained that for the Tokyo 2020+1 Olympics, preparation started as early as the 2016 Rio Olympics. He disclosed that the PSC has spent around P2 billion on the national team’s expenses from that time to the present for the national team’s preparation.
“Pero hindi naman kailangan na umabot ka ng 12 years para maka-medalya ka sa Olympics. Depende talaga sa talento, coaching, exposure, serendipity, at panahon, maraming factors ‘yan,” Ramirez explained.
Like Ramirez, Tolentino is upbeat of the country’s chances to land a gold in the summer games.
“Matagal ko nang sinasabi ito, we will get a minimum of one gold. ‘Pag lumampas doon, bonus na iyun,” said Tolentino.
The POC chief, however, added that he won’t give a name or face to the athlete who will most likely claim the country’s first-ever gold medal, saying all members of Team Philippines are capable.
Those with great chances of winning it all are golfers Yuka Saso, Bianca Pagdanganan and Juvic Pagunsan, weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, pole vaulter Ernest John Obiena, gymnast Carlos Yulo and boxers Eumir Felix Marcial and Nesthy Petecio.
The rest of the 19-strong Philippine contingent composed of boxers Carlo Paalam and Irish Magno, rower Cris Nievarez, taekwondo jin Kurt Barbosa, skateboarder Margielyn Didal, weightlifter Elreen Ando, shooter Jayson Valdez, judoka Kiyomi Watanabe, trackster Kristina Knott and swimmers Luke Gebbie and Remedy Rule also have what it takes to pull off a monumental surprise.
Lift of faith
Even before the coming Tokyo games, Diaz is already the most decorated Olympian ever, having participated in three Olympiads already, with a fourth one in Tokyo coming.
At age 17, Diaz made her first Olympic venture in 2008 in Beijing as a wildcard entry, who bombed out in the prelims. In the London games, four years later, she again fell by the wayside, although slowly but surely, she was making progress
Finally when no one was looking in the 2016 Rio Olympics, she surprised everyone with a silver finish, that catapulted her into stardom and a household name.
If she wins the gold Tokyo, she will be the Philippines’ greatest athlete of all time.
The Power of 3 Golfers
Hopes are high on Saso, Pagdanganan and Pagunsan winning golf’s ultimate prize.
“Their confidence level is at their peak. They all have realistic chances even for the gold,” said golf official Bones Floro as he took note of their recent successes in the international scene.
Saso, for one, is the newly crowned Women’s US Open champion, who made history as the first athlete from the Philippines to win a golf major.
Currently ranked no. 8 in the world, Saso has won at practically all levels in her young golf career, from local tournaments hosted by her godfather International Container Terminals Services, Inc., to the World Junior Golf, the Asian Games, the LPGA Japan Tour and the LPGA.
Prior to her US Open triumph, the 19-year-old Saso was a dominant force in the Japanese Tour, where she is currently fourth on the money list with earnings of ¥97,721,942 (P42 million), even though she has already left the tour for the more lucrative LPGA.
Olympic golf will be held in Japan, Saso’s other “home.”
“I actually already played there, the golf course was really good. They changed everything, and it’s all in good condition,” said Saso, referring to the Olympic golf venue the Kasumigaseki Country Club.
Pagdanganan takes pride in the fact that she is currently one of the longest-hitters, if not the longest hitter, in the LPGA, which labels her as the “future and a revolutionary figure of women’s pro golf.”
The 24-year-old Pagdanganan finished tied for ninth in her first major, the PGA Championship, and was then tied for third at the Drive On Championships behind winner Ally McDonald and world number five Danielle Kang to rocket to 43rd in the 2020 money list after playing only six events.
On the other hand, the 43-year-old Pagunsan, who has earned points in the men’s division to make it to the quadrennial meet, recently conquered the 2021 Mizuno Open for his first Japan Golf Tour title last May 30 at the Setonaikai Golf Club in Okayama, Japan.
“It’s summer in Tokyo and the weather is quite similar to the Philippines. So, they will be very comfortable,” said Floro.
Boxing’s Fabulous Four
For as long as any sports fan worth his salt can remember, boxing has long been a source pride for the Philippines in the Olympiad.
As proof, Filipino boxers delivered five—two silvers and 3 bronzes—of the Philippines’ 10 Olympic medals.
The silver medalists were featherweight Anthony Villanueva during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and light flyweight Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, while the bronze medalists were bantamweight José Villanueva in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, light fly Leopoldo Serantes in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and Onyok’s older brother light fly Roel Velasco in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
“We cannot say whether they can win medals, but we think we are giving them all the preparation and opportunity to do well. The coaches, led by Olympic head coach Don Abnett, are pacing them so that they will reach their peak when the Olympics come around,” said Association of Boxing Alliances of the Philippines secretary-general Ed Picson.
Marcial (75KG), who trained at the Wild Card Gym of legendary coach Freddie Roach in Los Angeles, before holding a training camp in Colorado, USA, is the boxing team’s most decorated warrior.
Marcial was world juniors’ champion in 2011, best Asian boxer in 2014, many-time SEA Games champion and the 2019 World AIBA silver medalist.
On the other hand, Petecio (57KG) was a 2019 Southeast Asian Games champion and 2019 AIBA Women’s World titlist.
Irish Magno (women’s 52KG), the 2012 Taipei Open champion, surprised everyone when she performed at hear peak and qualified for the Summer Games via the Asia/Oceania qualifiers held in March 2020 in Jordan, where she beat a six-time world champion Mary Kom of India via a 5-0 shutout.
Meanwhile, Carlo Paalam (men’s 52KG), the 2019 Southeast Asian Games
Champion, was a bronze medalist in the 2018 Jakarta-Palembang Southeast Asian Games.
“For the Philippine pride and glory, the next immediate target is a medal or medals in Tokyo this July. It will not be easy, but we believe it is within reach,” said ABAP president Ricky Vargas.
Multiple medals for Yulo?
Yulo is now showing more proficiency in three of six events of the men’s artistic gymnastics, giving the 21-year-old Yulo better chances of winning in the individual events when he finally competes in the Tokyo Olympics.
Gymnastics Association of the Philippines president Cynthia Carrion said
Yulo’s coach Munerhiro Kugimiya has managed to help the Filipino improve his routines out of the floor exercises, which is his main forte.
But Yulo has since become more skilled in executing routines in the vault and the parallel bars, too.
“He is doing very well,” said Carrion, adding that Yulo is looking to win the gold in his pet event, the floor exercise, and another medal, a silver perhaps, in the vault.
“Caloy also wants to get to the finals of the parallel bars. The pommel and rings are the only ones he’s not doing well at,” added Carrion.
Last month, Yulo showed how well he was doing when he bagged a bronze medal in the 2021 All-Japan Apparatus Championships, where he tallied 14.966 points to land third place in the men’s parallel bars event.
Rio Olympics gold medalist Yusuke Tanaka and Kaito Sugimoto tied for the gold medal after they both received 15.400 points.
Yulo intentionally did not join his pet event, the floor exercises during the competition for fear of being scouted, but he still came over and watched.
He made history at the 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics in Stuttgart, Germany, when he topped the men’s floor exercise and earned a ticket to the Tokyo Games.
Obiena among the big guns
Athletics’ pride in Obiena moved to sixth place in the pole vault rankings of the World Athletics just a few weeks before the start of games, leaping from 10th following a string of successful campaigns in international competitions, where he set the Philippine record twice.
Obiena struck gold when he cleared 5.70 meters in the Gothenburg Athletics Grand Prix in Germany on June 2, before breaking the Philippine record, which he also owns, on June 11 when he cleared 5.85 meters for the gold medal in the Jump and Fly Meet in Mossingen, Germany.
Obiena then erased the mark for the second time when he registered 5.87 meters to claim the silver medal in the Irena Szewinska Memorial-Bydgoszcz in Poland at the end of June, behind behind American pole vaulter Chris Nilson, who made it in 5.92 meters.
Armand Duplantis, the world record holder, is still the no. 1 pole vaulter, while 2016 Olympics bronze medalist Sam Kendricks is at the second spot. Piotr Lisek, the 2017 World championships silver medalist, is at third, followed by Renaud Lavillenie, Christopher Nilsen and Obiena. Rio Olympics champion Thiago Braz slipped to no. 7.
“The Olympics is very near and no one can predict the results, but rest assured that the fighting spirit is very much alive. We will proudly, not just represent the Philippines, but fight for its glory,” wrote Obiena. “I rest it all to You.”
A Filipino athlete who will win a gold medal in the Olympics could receive as much as P50 million in cash incentives, according to POC president Tolentino.
So far, a gold medal in Tokyo is now worth a whopping P30 million – P10 million each from the government, and business tycoons Ramon S. Ang of San Miguel Corporation and Manny Pangilinan of the MVP Group and MVP Sports Foundation
But the Tagaytay congressman said more cash bonuses will come once the gold medal is finally won.
“I expect more to come once the gold is delivered. It may even reach P50 million,” said Tolentino, who also promised a brand-new house and lot for every athlete, who will win the gold. “Definitely. This is our time. We’ll win that gold as one.”
Unity through sports
Ramirez said that this Olympic campaign can become a uniting factor for the country.
“Sana makatulong sa environment ng Pilipinas. Hopefully, we can unite them. Sana magkaisa ang mga Pilipino dahil sa mga atleta,” said Ramirez, who also requested the prayers and support of Filipinos for all the national athletes, who will be representing the nation in the highest athletic competition in the world from July 23 to August 8.
“I encourage everyone to offer some prayers for our delegation. We need your prayers and your cheers. Win or lose, help us. Sana mamayagpag ang atletang Pilipino,” said Ramirez.