Olympics and beyond: 2021 was a good year for Filipino athletes

Published December 31, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Ramon Bonilla


Ramon Bonilla

In a year that was predominant of bad news, with the end this ordeal not in sight, it was the sportsmen—many of them— that lifted up the spirits of Filipinos that are longing for inspiration, something that went missing when the coronavirus pandemic caught us off-guard and made us all realize that every piece of pride, any source of faith and hope, should be cherished and immortalized.

Who would not be in tears when Hidilyn Diaz, the pride of Zamboanga City, turned Tokyo as her crowning site? After years of misfortunes and near-misses, the diminutive athlete, with her broad shoulders carrying the weight of the nation, struck gold in women’s weightlifting to become the first Filipino to win an Olympic gold since our first participation in 1924.

Of course, it was not only Hidilyn that wore the national colors on the podium, with boxers Nesthy Petecio and Carlo Paalam winning silver medals, and Eumir Marcial taking bronze despite great odds in a scale that is as big as the Olympics.

The Tokyo Games truly served as a gauge for sporting greatness and maybe a notice for the next batch of athletes to do the same feat—no matter how tough the contest is, or if the coronavirus is still a damper to any aspiration in the years to come. But the Tokyo success was not the only competition where Filipinos shone brightly against the heaviest of opponents as Yuka Saso, Carlos Yulo, Carlo Biado, EJ Obiena, Alex Eala and Nonito Donaire all took their share of the spotlight throughout 2021.

Saso, then 19 years old, shocked the world when she beat Japan’s Nasa Hataoka and win the US Women’s Open last June. It was a thrilling match that saw the two golf players push themselves to the limit in the third playoff hole, with the Filipino-Japanese showing the poise and skill to edge out her foe and tie South Korea’s Park In-bee as the youngest winner in the tournament’s history plus a whooping cash prize of $1 million on her name.

Unfortunately, Saso announced that she is choosing Japanese citizenship when she turns 22 for better opportunities, almost the same case when Grandmaster Wesley So left the country and switched federations to the US.

Yulo, on the other hand, clinched the gold medal in men’s vault of the World Championships held in Kitakyushu, Japan last October. The gymnast also won silver in parallel bars to redeem himself from a forgettable performance in his pet event floor exercise.

Biado owned the headlines in September when he claimed the US Open Pool title by beating Singapore’s Aloysius Yapp. He became only the second Filipino to win the prestigious tournament next to Efren “Bata” Reyes who took the crown in 1994.

Despite missing his own expectations at the Olympics, Obiena made sure to come up big when he set a new Asian pole vault record of 5.93 meters at the 17th Golden Roof Challenge in Austria last September. Ranked sixth in the world, the reigning Southeast Asian Games champion had a year to remember with plenty of podium finishes in top-tier tournaments in Europe.

There’s Eala, the tennis prodigy who ruled her first professional singles tourney in Manacor, Spain to open the year. She also partnered with Oksana Selekhmeteva of Russia to top the French Open junior doubles last June.

Lastly, the list wouldn’t be complete without pro boxing. With Manny Pacquiao announcing his retirement from the sport this year, it was Donaire who could carry the torch for this boxing-loving country. Last May, he finished Nordine Oubaali in the fourth round for the WBC bantamweight title in California, before stopping compatriot Reymart Gaballo just two weeks ago to successfully defend his title.

With this chapter closing on a good note and only history books serving as a reminder of how great this year was, let us not forget the sacrifices, sweat, blood and tears that these athletes had to shed to make us proud. Looking forward, SEA Games is months away with Hanoi, Vietnam taking the hosting duty. It is a good venue to measure if the success of 2021 had a ripple effect on the athletes of the next generation.