Onward to Paris

Published August 9, 2021, 7:11 PM

by Tito Talao

French aerial patrol ‘Patrouille de France’ fly over the fan village of The Trocadero set in front of The Eiffel Tower, in Paris on August 8, 2021 upon the transmission of the closing ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP)

TOKYO — After the XXXII Olympiad, it’s hard to imagine what the Philippines can do for an encore in Paris in 2024.

Or if there would even be a curtain call for some of those who competed here, especially the four athletes who took turns bowing to a rapt audience following historic performances in the world’s biggest sports theater.

As the drapes fell Sunday night on the pandemic-delayed Games, with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach handing over the Olympic flag to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo in a fast-paced closing ceremony, silver medalist Nesthy Petecio — one of the heroes in the country’s 2020 Olympic participation — carried the Philippine flag and ushered into the National Olympic Stadium the remaining representatives of the original 19-man PH team.

Petecio reached the final of the featherweight division to become the country’s first female Olympic boxing medalist and third in her discipline to win a silver medal after Anthony Villanueva in 1964 also in Tokyo and Mansueto Velasco in 1996 in Atlanta.

Giving way to her emotions during the awarding ceremony at the Kokugikan Arena, Petecio dedicated the moment to her family, coaches and dearest friend who had passed just months before the Games.

She also transcended the stereotype view of athletes by declaring kinship to the LGBT+ community and sharing her award with them.

Petecio’s sterling performance provided continues shimmer for the Philippines’ campaign after Hidilyn Diaz, defying Chinese dominance in past weightlifting events in the Games, ended 97 years of fruitless quadrennial quests for a first-ever gold medal by hauling over her head and rising to her feet 127kg in the clean and jerk to rule the 55kg category championship and reduce to tears the world record holder.

The historic victory put Diaz, who got stranded for months with her small team in Malaysia after travel restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted a scheduled trip to Peru for an Olympic qualifier, on a pedestal of her own, hailed as a heroine and savior of Philippine sports.

In well-documented social media posts, Diaz shared how she trained and lifted weights using duffel bags filled with big plastic bottles of water slung on a bamboo stick under the roof of a makeshift gym in Malacca, a Malaysian city some 145 kilometers southeast of Kuala Lumpur.

A basement parking lot also served as a sprinting track for her since gym facilities were closed at the time — unique training setups that made her triumph at the Tokyo International Forum even more remarkable.

“Hindi ko po alam kung papano ko nakaya yung timbang na yon. Pero sa tulong po ng inyong mga dasal sa ating bansa at kay God, nakayanan ko po,” Diaz had said afterward. “Gagawin ko po lahat talaga para sa country natin.”

(I was able to lift that weight with the help of your prayers and God’s will. I would have done anything for the country.)

Middleweight boxer Eumir Felix Marcial, who won his first two fights faster than a bullet train, took the bronze medal in the 69-75kg after giving hell to previously undefeated top seed Oleksandr Khyzhniak of Ukraine, who trailed after the first round 3-2 and the second 2-1, and would have probably suffered his first loss in a long time if not for one judge, who inexplicably gave him all three rounds.

And had Marcial not been a spent force after his valiant effort in the first two rounds to put away the relentless Ukrainian.

“Naubusan po talaga ako ng hangin. Balak ko po sana, mag-tago-tago muna tapos ibubuhos ko lakas ko sa last minute. Pero di ko na nagawa,” said Marcial, who showed magnanimity — like Petecio before him after she lost to hometown girl Sena Irie in the final — by not blaming the judges for the unfavorable scores.

(I was drained by the third round and couldn’t execute my plan to pour on the heat in the final minute.)

“Hindi ko po sinisisi yung mga judges. Mas malakas din po talaga yung physical nang kalaban ko kesa sa ‘kin,” Marcial said. 

(The judges are not to blame, My opponent was really stronger.)

In the final, Brazilian Hebert Sousa, trailing on all cards after the second round, reaped the rewards of the battering Marcial gave Khyzhniak in the semifinals by scoring a third round knockout to claim the gold medal.

So the gold, silver and bronze medals were secured, a sparkling achieved that had surpassed expectations after the one medal show in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro — courtesy of Diaz’s silver medal — and matched the three-medal performance of the Philippines in 1932 in Los Angeles behind swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso, high jump’s Simeon Toribio and boxer Jose Villanueva brought home bronzes.

Still, a golden ray of sunlight peeks through a silver lining in the clouds.

Little-known Carlo Paalam, of Upper Carmen, Cagayan de Oro City, whose family name translates to ‘goodbye’ or ‘farewell,’ had send off a 2016 Rio Olympics gold medalist in the quarterfinals and a hometown boy in the semifinals to set up a title bout with Great Britain’s Galal Yafai, stirring fresh hopes of an improbable second gold medal with Diaz’s suspense-filled triumph over Qiuyun Liao still the talk of the country.

Paalam, who used to scavenge recyclable materials for a few pesos in the local junk shop, immediately engaged the experienced British, hoping to build up points early and set the pace.

But Yalal had been a veteran of many international wars and proved up to the challenge as he dropped Paalam with a lightning left straight at the end of a four-punch barrage halfway in the opening round.

“Actually I was surprised that he went down,” said Galal. 

Despite being shaken, Paalam fought to salvage the fight, winning over a judge in the second round and getting all five to his side in the third, but the damage caused by the fall could not be undone.

“Ginawa ko rin kung ano ‘yung sinasabi ng mga coaches ko. Pero pine-pressure niya (Yafai) talaga ako. Gusto nya talaga na kino-corner ako para hindi ko magawa ‘yung laro ko. Kahit anong galaw ko, kina-cut nya ako lagi. Alam ko na pagod na rin sya dahil nahirapan din sya sa akin,” said Paalam.

(I did what I was told to do. But Yafai pressured me endlessly, cut me off to the corners so I couldn’t execute my own plan. I knew he was also tired because I also got to him.)

As Paalam cradled the silver medal, crafted in part using discarded gadgets, he said the hardware has become a symbol for him, a real-life connection to his past.

The silver medal, to a less personal degree for Paalam, signifies a greater one for the country —which guaranteed the most successful Olympic campaign for the Philippines, giving the would-be Paris Olympians three years from now something to aim for.

Football chief Mariano ‘Nonong’Araneta, chef de mission of the PH contingent here, says he wouldn’t be surprised if familiar faces will march on July 26, 2024 along the Seine River in Northern France, where the inaugural rites will be held, instead of in a stadium.

“Eighteen of the 19 athletes who q ualified here are first-timers,”
 says Araneta, hours before the afternoon flight back to Manila from the Haneda Airport.

“The boxers will surely be there, as with the golfers, rowing, Caloy [Yulo], the weightlifters, and many others.”

A bar had been set in Tokyo for the succeeding batch of PH Olympians to follow, says Araneta, but adds key ingredients must be added to the brew for it to be as potent.

“Other NSAs (National Sports Associations) need to hire qualified foreign coaches and sports psychologists,” he says.

Diaz’s closely-knit team includes Chinese coach Kaiwen Gao and psychologist Karen Trinidad, along with nutritionist Jeaneth Aro and strength and conditioning coach Julius Naranjo, with Aro also supervising the nutritional needs of the PH boxers, rowers and taekwondo representative Kurt Barbosa, among others

“Their valuable presence has been been proven here,” says Araneta.

So as fighter jets screamed over the Paris skies during the handover of the Olympic flag, leaving trails of blue, white and red, and crowds cheered and celebrated at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, Philippine sports officials thank  sports patrons while laying the groundwork for the country’s participation in the XXXIII Olympiad.

“We have reshaped history for the Philippines in this 2020 Olympics. Such would not have been possible without, foremost, Divine grace, and the solidarity and faith our filipino athletes have displayed,” said Rep. Bambol Tolentino, president of the Philippine Olympic Committee. 

“Let’s rest a little and get back to work. Onward to Paris 2024.”

Still three years until the curtains to the next Olympics rise, and already the  stage is being set for another golden performance for Philippine athletes.