THE Philippines has a lean, 11-man athlete carrying the country’s tri-colors in the London Olympics, which runs from July 27 to August 12.
That is four short of the number of athletes which represented the country in Beijing four years ago. Sixteen Filipinos saw action in the Athens Games in 2004, 20 in the 2000 Sydney Olympiad, 12 in 1996 in Atlanta, 26 in Barcelona twenty years ago, and 31 in Seoul in 1988.
Two silver and seven bronze medals have been won by the country since it started participating in the Olympiad in 1924.
The pair of silver medals were courtesy of boxers Anthony Villanueva in the 1964 Tokyo Games (bantamweight) and Mansueto `Onyok’ Velasco in 1996 Atlanta (light-flyweight), which also marked the last time a Filipino stood at the Olympic medal podium.
The bronze medals were provided by Teofilo Yldefonso in swimming – the country’s first ever Olympic medal – in 1928 in Amsterdam (200m breaststroke), trackster Simeon Toribio (high jump), boxer Jose Villanueva (bantamweight), and Yldefonso (200m breaststroke) in the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, which went down as the most number of medals won by a Filipino contingent in a single Olympics.
The other bronze medalists were runner Miguel White in the 1936 Berlin Games (400m hurdles), and boxers Leopoldo Serrantes (light-flyweight) and Roel Velasco (light-flyweight) in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics in Seoul, and Barcelona, respectively.
In all, boxing delivered the most number of Olympic medals for the country with a total of five, the last of which was won by Onyok 16 years ago.
The boxers’ success ended there, and no sports association has since managed to step up and deliver.
This time in London, the fight is in the hands of seven men and four women, and while timesheets and scorecards show there’s little chance for most of them, there is much hope for all.
Lifting steel plates and iron bars is light work it seems for Hidilyn Diaz. The heavier ordeal, apparently, was the long wait to be confirmed for the 2012 London Games.
The 21-year-old Zamboanga native didn’t get the outright ticket when she placed fourth in the 58-kg division of the Asian Championships in the summer, but her lift of 217 kg turned out to be better than others aspirants in various continental qualifying events, enough for her to be finally included in the London start list.
“I’ve worked hard to get this far. I’m ready to compete,” said Diaz, who had been torn between continuing her studies and pursuing her Olympic dream.
Now the diminutive Diaz, ranked ninth in the world in her division, reaps the fruits of her sacrifices as she returns to the Games as a qualifier after getting a free ticket as a wild card in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Diaz has since improved that mark, lifting 219 in the National Games and now her team is eyeing an even bigger lift that could put her very near a podium spot at ExCel London.
Weightlifting competitions run from July 28 to August 7, with the medal event of the 58-kg division set July 30.
Teacher is a fighter
Tomohiko Hoshina is not a newcomer in Philippine sports.
The high school teacher in Tokyo, whose mother is from Bulacan, had actually bagged silver for the Philippines in the Southeast Asian Games in 2007.
Although he has improved through the years by competing in top European tournaments, it wasn’t evident in the SEA region after he missed the 2009 Games in Laos and when the SEA Games Federation scrapped his weight division, the plus 100 kg, in the 2011 meet in Indonesia.
Now the 25-year-old Hoshina wears the country’s tri-colors on the big stage at ExCel London, the largest competition venue for these Games.
Hoshina gained berth to the Olympics through the Judo Union of Asia quota, which had an allocation of 20 slots—12 men and eight women—to the London Games.
The Fil-Japanese placed joint seventh in the Asian Championships in 2011 but fell at the first hurdle in the 2012 meet.
Fourteen divisions — seven each in the men’s and women’s sides — will be contested in London from July 28 to August 3. Hoshina’s event is set on the final day.
A top mountain bike rider, Daniel Caluag crossed over to BMX.
He also crossed over from the US to the Philippines.
Caluag is part of the Lindsey Wilson College team that placed third in the 2011 USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike Nationals and back-to-back dual slalom winner in the 2010 and 2011 Mizzou Cycling Mountain Race.
The 25-year-old Caluag, who traces his roots to Bulacan, made it to the men’s elite quarterfinals of the 2012 BMX World Championships in May at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham.
Now the rider who also did track racing, will compete at the BMX track of the Olympic Park where 32 men battle for one gold medal and 16 women battle for the other from August 8 to 10.
Caluag will be the first rider to see action in the Olympics since the 1992 Barcelona Games, where road cyclists Norberto Oconer and Domingo Villanueva took part.
Mark Javier has trained his sights on a better showing after falling short the last time.
In Beijing, Javier was seeded 36th after shooting 654 in the ranking round featuring 64 archers from 37 nations. That score set up a meeting in the round of 64 with No. 29 Kuo Cheng Wei of Chinese Taipei, but the Filipino fell just short, 102-106.
Now in his second Olympic appearance, the 31-year-old Javier looks to go deep into the tournament. He finished fifth in the men’s division of the individual recurve event in the World Championships recently in Utah, earning a spot in the Olympics because several competitors who placed higher have already previously booked tickets to London.
Seeded sixth, Javier defeated Jan Rijavec of Slovenia, 7-3, then scored a 6-2 win over Bjarne Marius Laursen, conqueror of Filipino Paul Marton Dela Cruz in the previous round.
Javier was nipped by Elias Malave of Venezuela, 6-5, in the quarterfinals, but had the best score among those who were eliminated in that phase to take fifth spot.
The men’s medal round is set on the final day, August 3. Archery schedule at the great Lord’s Cricket Ground starts on July 27th.
There has apparently been a significant improvement for the national archers since the acquisition of a Korean coach, who brought in new and better ideas, plus new and better equipment for the Filipinos.
Rachel Ann Cabral is one of the beneficiaries of the training and gear brought in by 1992 Barcelona Olympics silver medalist Chung Jae Hun.
Part of the team that embarrassingly bowed out in the early rounds of the Southeast Asian Games last year, Cabral said recently that Chung has helped straighten things out for the national team, especially with the more modern bows and arrows that he has brought from Korea.
The 27-year-old Cabral did not disappoint Chung as she qualified for the London Games with a fine performance in the World Championships last month in Utah. That was just a month since Chung’s arrival in the Philippines.
Cabral defeated Lya Solano of the Dominican Republic, 6-4, but lost to Leidys Brito of Venezuela, 6-2, in the next round. Cabral beat compatriot Edwina Delos Reyes, 7-1, in the battle for ninth place and earned a slot in London.
The women’s final is set August 2.
Out to prove worth
Mark Anthony Barriga is out to prove his doubters wrong.
That’s because he didn’t get his slot outright. In fact, he lost in the qualifying event.
The 19-year-old Barriga bowed to Beijing Olympic champion Zou Shiming in the 2011 World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan. The event offered 10 Olympic slots — allotted to the eight quarterfinalists and two fighters who lost in the round of 16 to the eventual gold and silver medalists.
Zou went on to bag the gold, and Barriga went on to claim the Olympic slot.
Now the young pugilist from boxing hotbed Panabo tries to prove his worth after being denied a chance to shine in the world meet by Zou, a three-time world champion.
Boxing has long been considered the best chance for Filipinos to win gold in the quadrennial meet. It will be tough, for all eyes will be on the one young pug who managed to make it to the start list of the boxing tournament set from July 28 to August 12.
The men’s light flyweight first round is set July 31 with the final on August 11.
Long jumper is a long shot
Marestella Torres is known to bounce back from dismal performances, and she recently made up for a fifth place finish in the second leg of the Asian Athletics Grand Prix by winning gold in the third and final leg in Thailand.
Now the 31-year-old from San Jose, Negros Oriental is all set to see action at the Olympic Park in London, hoping to make up for a rather anemic performance in Beijing.
Torres leapt 6.17 meters in Beijing, well short of her Southeast Asian Games’ winning jump of 6.31 meters the year before.
She has since recorded much better performances in various tournaments, and now holds the SEA Games record of 6.71 meters, which she hopes to match or improve on when she sees action at the Olympic Park in London. Athletics runs from August 3 to 12, with the women’s long jump event set on the seventh and eighth.
In Beijing, the winning leap was 7.04m, and 6.71m would have placed in the top six. This year the world leading performance is 7.15m by Britney Reese of the US, who leapt 6.87m (qualifying round) and 6.76m (final) in Beijing.
Tough road ahead
Steeplechase specialist Rene Herrera, champion in the Southeast Asian Games for 10 years, will be running a different event in London — the 5,000 meters.
While it isn’t his pet event, the 33-year-old from Guimaras competes at the Olympic Park in high spirits after a recent silver-medal finish in the 5K in a Hong Kong meet just before going to London for the pre-Games training camp.
He will need to do better than his 15-minute and 1.73-second performance in Hong Kong, however, to make some noise in London.
Qualifying times at the Beijing Games are well under 14 minutes, and the winning time was 12:57. This year’s best time is 12:56.98 by Mohamed Farah of Britain.
Although he admits he is the longest of long shots against a field that is expected to be dominated by Africans and/or Americans, Herrera seems unfazed, saying that competing with the brightest brings out the best in him. The men’s 5,000m preliminaries will be on August 8, with the final on the 11th.
“Kapag nandoon na sa competition, lalo na pag alam mong matindi ang mga kalaban mo, nagkakaroon ka rin ng motivation para mas higitan pa yung dati mo nang nagagawa,” said Herrera.
No holiday break
Swimming’s new darling never took a holiday break from training, even during Christmas season, in the past few years as she prepared for this big swim.
But Jasmine Alkhaldi, a marketing and international business sophomore at University of Hawaii, knows where she stands, and knows what to expect as return on that huge investment.
“To place well and to improve my best time,” Alkhaldi said with a smile.
The 5-foot-9 Alkhaldi made the semifinals of the 100-meter freestyle in the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore, and set her personal best of 56 seconds in the same event in the 2011 Southeast Asian Games.
Semifinalists in the Beijing Games clocked under-55, and the winning time was 53.12.
But simply knowing that she will be with the top swimmers from all over the world, including, of course the best swimmer ever Michael Phelps, at the Aquatics Centre in London, makes the 19-year-old Alkhaldi feel “excited and honored.”
“May pressure din, lagi namang meron niyan. But you just have to overcome it,” said Alkhaldi.
The Aquatics Centre will host 32 of the 34 swimming events, with the marathon events set at Hyde Park. The women’s 100-m freestyle fires off August 1 with the medal round set the next day.
Battling the big boys
Just a couple of years ago, Jessie Khing Lacuna was a kid who swam like a man, dominating his age groups, then shattering a men’s national record.
Now 18, he enters the big stage where the biggest of big men compete — the 200-meter freestyle was Michael Phelps’ event, although the American recently dropped it from his program. All of a sudden Lacuna feels like a kid again.
“Syempre ibang-iba, malaki na yung kalaban, ‘mama’ na talaga, wala nang age limit,” said Lacuna, remembering how tough it was during the 2010 Youth Olympics, where he made the final eight and thinking how much tougher it will be in the London Games.
During the Singapore national age-group tournament, Lacuna broke Miguel Molina’s national record in the 200-meter freestyle by clocking one minute and 50.90 seconds.
In Beijing, the 16th qualifier Dominik Koll of Austria clocked 1:47.81 and Phelps went on to rule the event in 1:42.96.
“Ma-break lang yung personal best time is malaking bagay na. Maka-rank ng magandang place, makasama sa top eight,” said Lacuna.
The men’s 200m freestyle event starts on July 29, with the medal round to be held the next day.
Looking to do better than minimum
Skeet shooter Brian Rosario had proven he can match the minimum qualifying scores for the Olympics - six times in the last four years - except that he made it in unofficial qualifying events for the quadrennial games.
It was enough, however, for the national shooting federation to pick him over three other top shots for the one wild card awarded to the country for the London Olympics.
The 30-year-old Rosario had hit 122 of 125 targets in one national tournament and made 120/125 in several international competitions. He just hopes he can reprise that performance when he competes against the world’s best at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich.
In Beijing, Vincent Hancock of the US topped the preliminaries with 121 then shot 24 in the final for a 145, which was matched by Tore Brovold of Norway (120-25). Hancock won the shoot-off for the gold.
Shooting fires off on July 28 and will run until August 6, with the men’s skeet competitions set July 30 and 31.