If there was ever a time the country could realistically do it, it’s in the next 2 weeks.
The Philippines takes another crack — its 22nd to be exact — at taking home an Olympic gold medal when it sees action in the Tokyo Games, which officially start Friday night.
Cris Nievarez opened the Filipinos’ campaign earlier in the day when he qualified for the quarterfinals in men’s single sculls in rowing. He next competes on Monday.
Nievarez is just one of 19 national team members participating in the first Olympics in the pandemic era — one that is heavily restricted, without in-person spectators, and under constant threat of the deadly COVID-19.
Regardless of the unprecedented circumstances, these Games have brought optimism within the national sports community. The reason? This team has enough accomplished, battle-tested members who have a legitimate shot at ending a gold drought that has spanned 22 Olympic Games since the country debut in Paris 1924.
There’s world champion gymnast Carlos Yulo; reigning US Women’s Open golf champion Yuka Saso; and weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, a veteran of 3 previous Olympic Games and a silver medalist in Rio 2016.
“What we are working on with coach Munehiro Kugimiya is that he (Yulo) will win in a gold medal in the floor exercise, win a silver medal in the vault and that he will be in the finals of the parallel bars,” said Cynthia Carrion, president of the gymnastics national governing body.
Pole-vaulter EJ Obiena has had extensive training in Europe and won a few tournaments there.
Boxing has always been a consistent source of medals — 5 overall — and this year Eumir Marcial, Carlo Paalam, Nesthy Petecio and Irish Magno will try to live up to that tradition.
As medal dark horses, the leaders of their respective national sports federations have endorsed recent Japan Golf Tour winner Juvic Pagunsan, multi-titled golfer Bianca Pagdanganan, judoka Kiyomi Watanabe, and taekwondo jin Kurt Barbosa.
“I think that our three athletes have that covered, currently,” national golf federation secretary-general Bones Floro said, referring to Saso, Pagdanganan and Pagunsan’s state of mind a month ago.
“So napaka-realistic ng shot natin dito — shot nila — and the rest of the country for podium finishes, if not even gold.”
Rounding out the team are weightlifter Elreen Ando, shooter Jayson Valdez, skateboarder Margielyn Didal, sprinter Kristina Knott, and swimmers Luke Gebbie and Remedy Rule.
The Philippines has won 10 Olympic medals, the second most by a country that hasn’t won gold; only Malaysia has more medals (11) without a mint.
Besides Diaz, boxers Anthony Villanueva (Tokyo 1964) and Mansueto Velasco (Atlanta 1996) are the only silver medalists in Philippine Olympic history.
This batch of Filipino Olympians, though, has the best shot at breaking through with gold.
Their name forever etched in Philippine sports history won't be the only prize awaiting the Olympic champion; P33 million courtesy of the government and private donations are on the table, too.
For now, the windfall would have to wait.
It's time to buckle down to work.
Weightlifting coach Elbert Atilano said of Diaz: “She recently showed me a video and I saw marked improvement in her form. Hidy has a strong chance for gold if she can execute this properly in Tokyo.”
GAMES LIKE NO OTHER
Meanwhile Friday's opening ceremony will reflect a Games like no other, walking a fine line between celebrating the feats of the world's best athletes while acknowledging the global hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Postponed for a year, organizers were forced to take the unprecedented step of holding the Games without fans as the pandemic continues to take lives around the world.
Even the opening ceremony, normally a star-studded display teeming with celebrities, will have fewer than 1,000 people in attendance.
Regardless, it marks a coming together of the world, with an audience of hundreds of millions around the globe and at various stages of the pandemic expected to tune into together to watch the start of the greatest show in sport.
It will cap a rollercoaster 18 months of preparations for the athletes hoping to realize their career dreams.
The opening will take place without the usual mass choreography, huge props and the cornucopia of dancers, actors and lights associated with past celebrations.
One moment of enduring magic could come when organizers reveal the final runner carrying the Olympic flame in the long relay that began in Greece and lighting the stadium's cauldron.
The identity of the final torchbearer is one of the Games' most closely held secrets. Speculation has swirled around well known athletes such as former Seattle Mariners baseball player Ichiro Suzuki, Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels, and Grand Slam tennis champion Naomi Osaka.
A vastly smaller number of athletes will march in the teams' parade, with many planning to fly in just before their competitions and leave shortly after to avoid infections.
Only 15 global leaders are in attendance, along with Japanese Emperor Naruhito, who will formally open the Games as his grandfather Hirohito did in 1964, and U.S. First Lady Jill Biden. — With a report from Reuters
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