On International Women’s Day, a look at the rise of the Filipina athlete

Lorenzo Manguiat

Posted at Mar 08 2021 01:06 PM

Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz (third from left) is flanked by golfers Lois Kaye Go (from left), Bianca Pagdanganan, and Yuka Saso as they arrive in Manila after winning gold medals at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News/file

In honor of International Women’s Day, it is worth spending time highlighting the great strides Filipinas have made recently in the field of sports, specifically on the international stage.

When one talks about sports, perhaps the premier event to discuss on a global scale is no less than the Olympics. 

The Philippines first participated in the Olympics in 1924, but it wasn’t until 32 years after when a quartet of Filipina athletes namely hurdlers Manolita Cinco and Francisca Sanopal and swimmers Gertrudes Lozada and Jocelyn Von Giese competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympiad (Vicky Manalo Draves won a pair of gold medals in diving in the 1948 London Olympics, but she represented the United States). 

So far out of 387 total athletes who have represented the Philippines in 21 editions of the Summer Games, only 49 are female (12 percent). 

While that disparity may be disappointing, a closer look at the more recent editions of the quadrennial event has shown improvements in terms of representation of Filipina athletes. 

Twenty-five (25) Filipinas, or more than half of the total Filipina athletes who have represented the country in the Olympics, participated in the last six editions (1996 to 2016) compared to only 24 from 1956 to 1992. 

In the 2016 Rio Olympics alone, the Philippines sent 13 athletes and almost half (6) were female. 

Moreover, the lone Pinoy athlete to win a medal was a Filipina in the person of weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, who not only ended a 20-year medal drought for the country, but more importantly became the first FIlipina to win an Olympic medal (Arianne Cerdeña won an Olympic gold medal in bowling back in 1988, but it was considered a demonstration sport). Prior to Diaz’s historic victory, the Philippines previously won nine Olympic medals, all by men.

- Asian sensations -

Regionally, Filipinas have also been flexing their muscles. 

Two years following Diaz’s historic feat, Filipina athletes accounted for all four gold medals won by the Philippines in the 2018 Asian Games: Diaz in -53 lb women’s weightlifting, Margielyn Didal in women’s skateboarding, Yuka Saso in women’s individual golf and the trio of Saso, Bianca Pagdanganan and Lois Kaye Go in women’s team golf.

Furthermore, 12 out of the 21 total medals earned by the Philippines in the same Asiad were delivered by Filpinas. 

In the 2019 Southeast Asian Games that took place in the Philippines, Filipinas were responsible for 68 out of the 149 gold medals collected by the host country.

- The next generation -

More than just the Olympics, Asian Games and SEA Games, the new breed of Filipina athletes have been proving that they are ready to conquer the world and take up the mantle from legends of the past like track and field queens Lydia de Vega - Mercado and Elma Muros and bowling goddess Bong Coo.

The 19-year old Saso, who was recognized as the 2020 Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) Athlete of the Year, followed up her success in the Asian Games and SEA Games by claiming two straight titles and earning 93.891 million yen or over P42 million in the Japan LPGA as well as finishing an impressive 13th place in the US Women’s Open in her first stint at a major LPGA championship. 

Not to be outdone, Saso’s golf teammate in the national team, Pagdanganan was hailed as someone who could be the future of the LPGA following a pair of top 10 finishes and a spot in the US Women’s Open in her rookie campaign that earned her $203,775 or close to PHP 10 million. The 23-year old at one point even led the LPGA in driving distance.

Skateboarder Didal was recently named as the Women’s Asia Skater of the Year and currently ranked 14th among the world’s skateboarders. The 21-year Cebuano’s impact on society has been recognized by international publications as she was part of Forbes Asia’s ‘30 under 30’ list for sports and entertainment in 2020 as well as Time Magazine’s 25 most influential teens back in 2018. 

Meanwhile, 15-year-old tennis prodigy Alex Eala’s rise in the tennis world rankings has simply been phenomenal. 

After winning the 2020 Australian Open girls’ doubles title with her Indonesian partner Priska Nugroho, the 15-year Eala earned her first professional women’s singles title after topping the first leg of the Rafael Nadal Academy ITF World Tennis Tour in Mallorca, Spain in January of this year.

Eala’s feat enabled her to leapfrog from a previous world ranking of 942nd to 763rd in the Women’s Tennis Association. 

There are other Filipinas showcasing their talents internationally like volleyball player Jaja Santiago with the Aego Medics in the Japan V.League and basketball player Jack Danielle Animam with the Shih Hsin University of the University Basketball Alliance in Taiwan.

Perhaps at present there is not yet a transcendent Filipina athlete similar to a Manny Pacquiao nor has there been a watershed sports moment created by a Filipina athlete that has captured the imagination of the entire nation, but as the recent feats and accomplishments have increased, one can almost feel that we’re getting very close to that day.

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