In pursuit of a first Olympic gold medal for nearly a century now, the Philippines could finally nail it in a Summer Games like no other behind a lean but crack team bannered by a world champion gymnast, a champion golfer and a returning Olympic medalist.
Carlos Yulo, Yuka Saso and Hidilyn Diaz lead a 19-strong contingent chasing a golden breakthrough even as they face formidable foes, including a lingering COVID-19 threat that has placed the Japanese capital in a state of emergency.
In a lull before the storm, boxer Eumir Marcial and judoka Kiyomi Watanabe will lead the Philippine crew as proud flag-bearers during opening ceremonies tonight at the National Stadium, ushering in a fortnight of sporting battles among the best and brightest athletes from 205 countries, nations and territories.
The quest for the elusive Olympic gold begins for Team Philippines ahead of the opening rites with rower Cris Nievarez competing in Heat 5 of the men’s single sculls at 9:10 a.m. at the placid Sea Forest Waterway.
The Atimonan, Quezon native is up against rivals from Croatia, Benin, Nicaragua and Russia.
A dampener for the Philippines on the eve of the Tokyo Games opener was a coach being separated from the delegation in the Athletes Village following back-and-forth false positive and negative results from COVID-19 tests.
“To mitigate the risks to the Philippine team, we have decided to separate the coach from the delegation,” said Philippine Olympic Committee president Abraham Tolentino.
“It’s a tough decision, pero kailangan gawin to save the entire Team Philipines,” added Tolentino, who also urged the rest of the members of the delegation to be vigilant in protecting themselves from the virus.
“Konting tiis na lang,” he said.
The Athletes Village has been hit with 80 positive COVID cases even as hostilities have yet to begin.
Tolentino, however, sees it bringing little impact to Filipino athletes.
“Maybe, to the national sports association involved, apektado sila kasi nawalan sila ng coach, but to the rest of the Team Phl, I don’t see their morale going down because of this. Everyone is in high spirits and raring to go to battle for the country,” said Tolentino.
Filipino officials are firm in their belief that this could be the moment the country has long been waiting for – a golden breakthrough Filipino athletes have been targeting since sprinter David Nepomuceno competed in the Summer Games in Paris in 1924.
Lady boxer Nesthy Petecio and pole-vaulter EJ Obiena are also considered top medal prospects with their own achievements in the grand arenas of their respective disciplines.
Boxers Carlo Paalam and Irish Magno, skateboarder Margie Didal, golfers Bianca Pagdanganan and Juvic Pagunsan, weightlifter Elreen Ando, shooter Jayson Valdez, trackster Kristina Knott, swimmers Luke Gebbie and Remedy Rule, and taekwondo jin Kurt Barbosa complete the Philippine cast in these Olympic Games in extraordinary times.
With no fans permitted in Japan, foreign or local, Tokyo2020 has the distinction of being the first Games without spectators.
Crowds aren’t allowed in the playing venues, and a limited number of athletes is expected to represent each country during the parade as well as the number of top officials and dignitaries in the stands.
Chief of mission Mariano Araneta will be with the group marching clad in a traditional barong tagalog.
Araneta himself brims with optimism Team Phl could hit paydirt in these Games.
“We won our first silver in Tokyo in 1964 and we might also win our first gold here now,” said Araneta.
Boxer Anthony Villanueva delivered the country’s first of three silver medals in the 1964 Tokyo Games, a feat equalled by boxer Onyok Velasco in Atlanta 1996 and weightlifter Diaz in Rio de Janeiro 2016.