MANILA, Philippines—In the months leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, local sports officials were not shy about expressing their optimism about the Philippines' campaign.
Rep. Abraham "Bambol" Tolentino, the president of the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC), repeatedly made it known that he expected a "minimum of one gold medal." Another congressman, Mikee Romero, predicted a haul of two to five medals.
William "Butch" Ramirez, chairman of the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC), called this delegation the "most prepared" in the country's history of Olympic participation.
"We expect a return on investment, and it can be frustrating if they don't return with gold, or silver," Ramirez said, a week before the Summer Games officially opened.
There were no such frustrations, only celebrations, as Filipino athletes performed in historic fashion in the Tokyo Games. Nineteen Filipino athletes came to Tokyo to compete in the Olympics that had been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in their own way they gave the country something to cheer about for the past two weeks.
"This is the best," Tolentino said Sunday, after Team Philippines had concluded its campaign. "This is the best Olympics ng Philippines, the best ever Olympic team (of the) Philippines."
"Nalampasan natin lahat," he stressed.
RECORD MEDAL HAUL
The Philippines will head home with four medals -- a record haul for the nation. Before Tokyo 2020, the Philippines last won multiple medals in the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, with three bronzes. This time, Filipino athletes delivered a gold -- courtesy of weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz -- two silvers from boxers Nesthy Petecio and Carlo Paalam, and a bronze from another boxer, Eumir Marcial.
"Four out of 19, that's 21% (of our athletes)," said Tolentino. "Napakataas."
Diaz's gold medal was a milestone in Philippine sports history, and for Diaz herself, a culmination of an Olympic journey that started in Beijing 2008, when she was only 17 years old. She also became just the second Filipino athlete to win multiple Olympic medals, after swimmer Teófilo Yldefonso who won bronzes in 1928 and 1932.
The boxers, meanwhile, ended a 25-year medal drought for their sport. Not since Mansueto "Onyok" Velasco won silver in 1996 Atlanta had a Filipino boxer reached the podium, and in Tokyo three of them emerged as medalists after a truly superb performance from the boxing team.
Young flyweight Carlo Paalam, in particular, emerged as a star after an unexpected run to the finals. Perhaps the least heralded of the four-member boxing team, Paalam showed tremendous skill and savvy in his fights, which included an upset over the reigning Olympic champion in the quarterfinals.
For Tolentino, the Filipinos' performances showed that the momentum built by the athletes during the 2019 Southeast Asian Games was still going strong. Team Philippines dominated the SEA Games at home, winning a record 149 gold medals.
At the end of the Tokyo Olympics, the Philippines remained the best-performing Southeast Asian country, with its 1-2-1 medal count better than that of Indonesia (one gold, one silver, three bronzes) and Thailand (one gold, one bronze).
"We're No. 1 again sa Southeast Asia, with regards to the medal standing courtesy of weightlifting and boxing," Tolentino said.
"May mga European countries pa nga sa ilalim natin," he also said. "Ang laking inspirasyon."
STRONG START, STRONG FINISH
The medalists will rightly get the bulk of the attention, praise, and incentives. But the other Filipino athletes who did not reach the podium also showed promise in their respective events, leading to optimism for future Games.
It began with young rower Cris Nievarez, who got the Philippines' campaign off to a rousing start when he qualified for the quarterfinals of the men's single sculls by placing third in his heat. It was already the best performance by a Filipino rower; previous qualifiers did not reach the quarterfinals. Nievarez, still only 21 years old, would finish 23rd overall in a field of 32.
In between, Filipino athletes put on some impressive performances. Taekwondo jin Kurt Barbosa showed no fear of Korean top-seed Jang Jun, despite a 26-6 loss in the opening round. A day after Diaz won her gold, Elreen Ando competed in the women's 64kg division, and placed seventh overall in her maiden Games. EJ Obiena qualified to the pole vault final, eventually finishing 11th in a world class field that included the former Olympic champion, Thiago Braz, and world record holder Armand Duplantis.
Skateboarder Margielyn Didal finished seventh overall in women's street, but she made an impact bigger than her final placing. The Cebuana gained fans worldwide for her charisma and cheerful disposition during the competition, even when she suffered some awkward falls due to injury. She is now much-loved in Brazil, as well, thanks to her friendship with silver medalist Rayssa Leal.
Perhaps the one disappointment was Carlos Yulo's failure to advance to the final of the floor exercise, his pet event in gymnastics, after faltering during the qualifiers. But he made it to the finals in the vault, and finished an impressive fourth overall -- just 0.017 off the podium.
Yuka Saso then ensured that the Philippines would wrap up the Summer Games on a strong note, as she shot a 65 in the final round of women's golf for a total of 274, tied for ninth place.
The Filipino athletes' historic performance in Tokyo has created plenty of excitement for the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.
Some of the athletes have already made it clear that they plan to be there -- Petecio and Marcial are setting their sights on the top of the podium, and Yulo wants his redemption. Even Diaz has not ruled out a stunning fifth Olympics stint and a defense of her gold medal.
Some have yet to make a decision; Obiena, for instance, has said that he wants to consult with his coach before taking the next steps.
But as early as now, local sports officials are expressing the same optimism and hope for Paris that they did for the Tokyo Games.
"We have come to this sublime moment of triumph which emboldens us to dream of more, inspires us to go further and drives us to look positively ahead," the PSC said in a statement, Saturday. "We have successfully reached this point, and now armed with a blueprint, we can all do it again"
"Malaking bagay kasi pinakita na natin 'yung power ng Pilipinas kaya pala, kaya pala ng Pilipino," Tolentino said, for his part. "Aside from the medalists, meron ang naka-striking distance na andiyan lang. So 'yung mga nag-qualify dito, pipilitin din nila mag-qualify sa 2024, plus additional athletes pa sa iba-ibang NSA (national sports associations)."
"So madadagdagan pa ang delegates natin sa Paris," he predicted. "At pag nadagdagan, madami na namang potential."
It's a mission that will certainly take plenty of sacrifices from the athletes involved, and support not just from the government and the private sector. The PSC, in its statement, said that it "takes a nation to realize a dream," and that will remain true as the Philippines tries to show that its historic feat in Tokyo isn't a one-off.
Already, Tolentino says they are getting ready to get to work in getting the support that the athletes will need. The PSC has expressed its gratitude to its partners in the government, and the Filipino people for its taxes that funded the athletes journey. But they have also acknowledged that they need plenty of help from private corporations and individuals who are willing to do so.
"Ang sinabi, anong gagawin pagbalik? Magi-start ulit mamalimos," Tolentino said, pointing out that the POC is not an income-generating agency.
"So, pitch-in talaga ang lahat ng nagtitiwala," he said. "Sa ngayon, dumami na siguro ang nagtitiwala."
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