MANILA, Philippines -- While retaining the overall championship is a tall order, Team Philippines can still contend for second place in the upcoming Southeast Asian Games in Hanoi, Vietnam.
This, according to Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) president Rep. Abraham "Bambol" Tolentino, who believes that Team Philippines will be in a tight battle with Indonesia and Thailand for second place.
"Malaysia, Singapore, kaya natin. Pero Thailand and Indonesia, Philippines, 'yan ang maglalaban sa 2-3-4," Tolentino said in the Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) Forum this week.
Filipino athletes were unstoppable at home in 2019, winning a record 149 gold medals. Vietnam placed second with 98 mints, followed by Thailand (92) and Indonesia (72).
A confluence of factors have made it difficult for the Philippines to repeat as overall champions, Tolentino said. For one, the COVID-19 pandemic and budget limitations have hampered the training of national athletes. The POC president noted that the country's sports complexes in Metro Manila were also used as quarantine facilities, which was not the case in other countries.
Moreover, Vietnam removed sports that delivered a gold rush to the Philippines, notably arnis and obstacle sports. They also added events that are likely to be won by Vietnamese athletes, Tolentino said.
"Ang lamang natin sa Vietnam (in 2019) is 40-plus golds," said Tolentino. "Eh binawasan ni Vietnam ng 30-plus gold na events, kung saan tayo naka-gold. Tapos, nagdadag pa siya ng 30. So you can picture it."
"Talagang uphill battle. Nabawasan pa ang training ng mga bata, and there are budgetary constraints. So mabigat, mabigat ang labanan," he added.
According to Tolentino, Vietnamese athletes did not stop training even amid the pandemic. Thailand and Indonesia, meanwhile, have the budgetary capabilities and available infrastructure to prepare their athletes for the biennial events.
"Sports is there," Tolentino said of those countries. "Tayo, medyo nagamit kasi 'yung ibang facilities natin and budgetary constraints. So labanan talaga 'yan."
But he stressed that the Filipino athletes cannot be counted out, especially those who will be defending their gold medals in the SEA Games. Among the athletes he is counting on to deliver again are the Olympians, notably weightlifter Hidily Diaz, boxers Eumir Marcial, Nesthy Petecio and Carlo Paalam, and gymnast Carlos Yulo.
"Mabigat din talunin ang contingent natin, dahil cream (of the crop) 'yan," he said.
"Ang magdadala na lang sa atin, 'yung tapang natin, 'yung buo ang loob ng Pilipino, 'yung resiliency ng Pilipino na, idedepensa ko itong gold na nakuha ko, whether it's sepak, basketball or what, 'di ba," he also said.
"Yung iba, baka nag-improve pa, like volleyball. Ang weightlifting, hindi rin papayag 'yan na wala silang bago or what. Andiyan pa sila Hidilyn. Boxing, lalo na, hindi papayag 'yan," he added.
"Kaya malaki ang chance doon sa second. 'Yun ngang tatlong bansa po 'yun na sinasabi ko, powerhouse, labanan 'yan sa 2-3-4."
Tolentino is reasonably confident that the country won't fall to fifth place or lower. The Philippines had been in sixth place in the 2017 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, where Filipino athletes won 24 gold medals.
"Malabo na 'yun, based on our 2019 result, na overall champion. Malabo na 'yun," Tolentino said of possibly falling out of the Top 4 in the medal table. "'Yun nga ang sinabi ko -- kung ako 'yung atleta, idedepensa ko rin 'yung nakuha ko, kasi ako 'yung reigning champion."