The Hanoi mission could pose a different task for the battle-hardened Filipino athletes who traveled to the charming northeastern Vietnamese city armed with months of training and a big motivation that comes handy with a little prayer. With the cauldron now lit to mark the pandemic-delayed 31st Southeast Asian Games open, the image of the massive 2019 success is both a spark for a medal drive and a pressure on shoulders too heavy to overcome.
The country hosted the 30th edition more than two years ago, with the national athletes putting domination on all fronts to rake in 149 gold, 117 silver and 121 bronze medals. The roaring hometown fans came in huge throngs to support the Filipino teams in spanking new stadiums. It was the best finish for the flag in memory, a feat so immense that it is hard to replicate.
With the sporting world placed in the dark due to the pandemic, there was no way the reigning SEA Games champions, the podium finishers, or the aspiring medalist could buckle down to work and prepare for the Hanoi sportsfest. It was only when the Covid-19 cases spiraled down that these athletes could start intense training and have a taste of local and foreign competitions to get themselves warmed up before the Games.
Vietnam organizers have lined up only 40 sports, a big reduction from the 56 sports that the Philippines had penciled in 2019. Arnis, which earned the Filipino athletes 14 gold medals, was also cut from the list.
With all these playing in mind, can the Filipino athletes match the haul in 2019? Or, given the conservative predictions by sports officials, make a statement out of the powerhouse teams of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and host Vietnam?
With EJ Obiena, the Asia’s best pole vaulter, beaming tall and proud during the opening rites Thursday night, and Hidilyn Diaz, the Olympic champion, in town to provide the medal, and also the lift of spirit for her fellow athletes, the answer is a resounding YES. It’s going to be an arduous climb, but it’s possible to conquer.
Team Philippines has a lot of aces in store to give the opposing nations a good fight. Obiena, the flag-bearer during the parade of colors, is a sure bet for the gold medal, so does weightlifting queen Diaz whose eyes are burning with desire to give the country another moment of pride. Carlos Yulo, the world champion gymnast, is also a favorite, along with billiards star Carlo Biado, tennis sensation Alex Eala, and Tokyo Olympic veterans Nesthy Petecio and Eumir Marcial. Old but still gold, Efren “Bata” Reyes, the dashing cue master, could provide the fire along with the World Cup-bound women’s football team. Who could forget from the list the Gilas Pilipinas basketball team and the esports athletes?
The Hanoi SEA Games is a unique edition as it serves as a symbol of victory for the people that hurdled the worst of the pandemic and gather for one sporting spectacle. With the men and women of the Philippine delegation aiming to perform in the best way possible, and, hopefully, preserve the throne as the region’s best, these warriors are in unison to finish the second mission on the list: get back home safely and reunite with their families.