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    Here's how Team PH plotted its sixth-to-first ascent at SEA Games

    Dec 13, 2019
    PHOTO: Jerome Ascano

    THREE sheets of bond paper contained the formula that led to the Philippines' amazing rise from sixth to overall champion at the 30th Southeast Asian Games.

    These sheets of paper were filled with notes scribbled over time by Abraham 'Bambol' Tolentino, the president of the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) who was tasked with drafting the calendar and picking the events to be staged in what eventually went down as the biggest SEA Games ever.

    It's not really rocket science, but that formula enabled the Philippines to build a tidal wave of momentum that enabled Team Philippines to improve from 24 gold medals two years ago to an unbelievable 149 - and consequently win its first SEA Games overall championship in 14 years.

    The head of the national Olympic body personally handled the delicate task of choosing - cherry-picking may be a better term - the sports to be played and later scheduling these events in a manner that would build momentum for the home team from day to day over the course of the Games.

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    "I had a staff with me, but hindi naman sa pagbubuhat ng bangko, I did most of it," said Tolentino, the head of the national cycling association who won the POC presidency in elections held after ally Ricky Vargas' surprise resignation.

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    Under the rules of the SEA Games Federation, there are only two events that are indispensable in the multi-sport showcase: swimming and athletics. The rest of the sports in the calendar is laid down by the host, with the approval of the federation members, of course.

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    Although there is discourse, the host nation usually gets its way in the discussions.

    To get to an ideal number, Tolentino had to sit down with each national sports association (NSA) in the months leading up to the SEA Games to reach a compromise on what events to stage - and what to take out.

    The Cavite representative admitted the process led to heated dialogue and often required turning down officials, some of whom helped put him in power at the POC.

    “It was a long and meticulous process, talking with NSA presidents and secretary generals, asking for their honest impressions on which events must be included and which shouldn’t,” he said. “It’s about deleting those events where Filipino athletes won’t potentially win the golds.”

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    In the end, Tolentino settled for 529 events in 56 sports squeezed into 10 days of competition - a number which he said 'made the impossible possible.'

    “I knew that the best way to emerge overall champion is to use this formula. And now, we all know that it worked,” he said.

    Choosing the events was one thing, laying down the schedule is another. Tolentino takes pride in the master stroke of putting dancesport, cycling, triathlon, gymnastics, and wushu in a first day that produced 22 gold medals - just two short of the country's entire gold production in the 2017 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur.

    "Doon pa lang, ang laki na ng lamang," Tolentino recalled smiling. "Mahihirapan na talaga silang makahabol."

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    Team Philippines never took its foot off the pedal from there and ended up with a huge medal haul of 387, broken down to 149 gold, 118 silver and 120 bronze medals - surpassing the 113 gold medals it won the first time it lifted the overall championship as host back in 2005.

    Here's one more important stats line: after 2005, other countries averaged 77 additional gold medals when it came their turn to host the SEA Games. The Philippines added a whooping 125 gold medals to its coffers from 2017.

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      Tolentino said it was not all good, pointing to three sports which he said "failed to meet projections." But there is little reason to sulk. Tolentino bared before the Games that he expected Team Philippines to win 150 gold medals, with a base of 130 and a high of 180. He fell just a gold medal short.

      He insisted it was not a prediction.

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      PHOTO: Jerome Ascano
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