Global excellence in sport entails exceptional talent, skills, discipline, hard work, and a huge amount of money.
This recipe for success makes it extremely difficult for a tiny, third-world country like the Philippines to compete against rich, powerful nations in the international arena such as the Olympics.
But a new landscape is taking shape in Philippine sports, with the emergence of outstanding Filipina athletes making a big difference in the arena and setting new heights.
The unequal treatment of athletes, wherein preference is extended to the male sporting warrior, is now a thing of the past, as more and more Filipinas are becoming powerful, influential game-changers in the field of sports.
Karen Tanchanco- Caballero, lady president of the Pilipinas Sepak Takraw Federation, is a strong advocate of women power, although she “leans towards gender equity.”
“But I see an evident trend of us excelling in individual and contact sports and given the opportunity, we can see the emergence of Filipinas making it big,” she said.
She went on to emphasize this in the last Tokyo Olympic campaign when she said the Philippine team was “composed of 50-50 women and men athletes.”
This once-shy, lady weightlifter from Zamboanga City in Hidilyn Diaz will forever be remembered as the first athlete from the Philippines to win a gold medal in the Olympics, dubbed as the greatest sports show on earth.
The gold came 97 years after the Philippines first joined the Olympics in 1924 when a male sprinter named David Nepomuceno represented the country in track and field.
Four years later in Amsterdam, swimmer Teofilo Ildefonso won the country’s first medal—a bronze—in the men’s 200-meter breaststroke.
There were gallant attempts by Filipino boxers Anthony Villanueva, who bagged a silver boxing medal in 1964 in Tokyo, and Mansueto Velasco in Atlanta in 1996.
They all fell short from achieving the gold and even as Diaz herself came near that golden dream when she copped the silver (53-kg weightlifting) in Rio, Brazil in 2016.
After three long decades, a woman became the Philippines’ toast in weightlifting.
The golden triumph came in her fourth Olympic appearance in Tokyo last year as Diaz barely upstaged a Chinese rival in dramatic fashion to top the women’s 55-kg weightlifting category.
What made Diaz a superwoman that she is now? The 30-year-old star says it starts with setting a goal, having mental toughness and hard work.
“Importante talaga may pangarap kayo, kasi ito ang magbibigay sa inyo ng direksyon,” she said. “You have to embrace hard work. Hindi naman puwedeng pangarap lang. Kung hindi ka mag-aaral at mag-training, paano mo maabot ‘yun?,” she reasoned out.
With the goal in her mind, Diaz said she was able to stay on the line even when things go wrong.
“When you are about to give up, always go back to the big question ‘Why?” Bakit mo ginagawa ito? Dahil mahal mo ang ginagawa mo, mahal mo ang sports at value nito. Para sa pamilya mo. Para sa Bayan,” she said.
Even after winning the prestigious gold medal and the fame and fortune that went with it, Diaz is not yet done as she vowed to make her fifth Olympic appearance in Paris in 2024– even if it means competing in a higher weight category.
“Not surprised at all,” said Caballero, also the deputy-secretary general at the Philippine Olympic Committee of Diaz’s achievement. “I’ve always claimed before, our country’s first Olympic Gold will come from a Filipina. I knew it was a matter of time. And like manna from heaven, 2021 Tokyo Olympics made it a reality. The build-up has been evident in the past six years. We all knew we were all leading to it. We just needed to be patient and consistently supportive of their training needs and moral support.”
With the Olympic silver and gold medals under her belt, it can be said that Diaz is by far the most accomplished Filipino athlete in history.
First World Cup
The most recent talk of the town is this bunch of Filipina football players, collectively known as the “Malditas”.
Leaving behind the negative connotation of that Filipino word, everyone from that Philippine national women’s football team instead depicted a brave, iron-willed Filipina that defied tremendous odds to achieve an unprecedented feat of securing a slot in the World Cup of football.
Not much was expected from this team, with players training together for three months.
With an Australian coach of outstanding caliber and a crew composed of homegrown and overseas talents, the Philippine lady booters performed beyond expectations in the Asian Football Championship and are now going to the 2023 FIFA Women World Cup set in July in Australia and New Zealand.
The Philippine women’s squad first won over Thailand, then lost to Australia. They came back to beat Indonesia to secure a berth in the quarterfinals, where the most magical moment happened, beating Chinese Taipei by a penalty kick to reach the top four AFC rounds and seal a World Cup appearance.
Even as they failed to enter the finals following a 2-0 defeat to Korea in the semifinals, the Malditas and Filipino football fans can look forward to another spectacular run in the biggest stage where only a few elite are admitted.
Not bad for a team ranked no. 64 in the world to becoming no. 4 in Asia.
Olivia McDaniel, one of the major players in that breathtaking win over Chinese Taipei, could not hide her excitement.
“To be able to create history like this. It was just a dream a couple of months ago, but now it’s a reality,” McDaniel said.
Even coach Alen Stajic, who has been coaching for 20 years, was astonished by the experience.
“I think this is probably the best experience, I think, in my coaching career,” the former Australia Matildas coach said. “To take this group, who are so dedicated, so determined, so much disciplined, so much heart, so much spirit, considering what they had to overcome to reach this point.”
Sarina Bolden, who completed the upset ax over Taipei with her marginal penalty kick, promised that the best is yet to come for the over-achieving squad,
“A lot of people doubted us, we came in here and fought every single game and now have made a name for ourselves,” said Bolden. “Philippines, you’re gonna remember this team. And you’re going to see us in the World Cup. Don’t forget about us because we’re coming back.”
Punching for greatness
For a long time, boxing used to be a platform only for male athletes to show their power and striking skills. Until the ladies showed they can box, too.
Although they admitted having a male hero in boxing legend and presidentiable Manny Pacquiao, lady boxers Nesthy Petecio and Irish Magno are dead-set on writing their own storylines inside the ring.
Petecio, born from a poor family in Davao Del Sur, bagged the silver medal in last year’s Tokyo Olympics.
She started training since she was 11 years old and began fighting in local tournaments in her Sta. Cruz hometown offer prizes good enough to buy food for a day’s meal for her family.
Destiny brought her to the Tokyo Olympics with a semifinal victory against Japan’s Sena Irie. She is now living the dream with all the accolades and cash incentives thrown at her.
She’s not done yet as she vowed to make another try for the gold in Paris 2024.
“Hindi pa po tapos, gusto po pa rin pong makakuha ng ginto at hindi ko po ‘yan susukuan,” Petecio said.
Magno, Petecio’s teammate in the Philippine team, was the first Filipino woman to qualify for the Olympics, although she bowed out ahead of the medal round.
Petecio came back home alongside a squad that brought the best-ever Olympic finish for the Philippines. The two other Tokyo Olympic medals came from boxers Eumir Marcial (bronze) and Carlo Paalam (silver).
Pinay at heart
Another athlete that made the Philippines proud was Fil-Japanese Yuka Saso, who became the first Filipino to win a major title in golf with her victory in the prestigious US women’s Open in June last year.
Athough she has recently chosen to turn Japanese, Saso will always be a Filipino at heart, having spent her early years in a Filipino home before chasing greatness at the fairways.
Saso has been representing the Philippines in international competitions until the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, where she pocketed two gold medals in individual play and team event.
But beginning in 2022, she has decided to choose Japanese citizenship, which will make her more comfortable travelling and competing around because of the power the Japanese passport brings.
She will continually be regarded as Fil-Japanese, though, when she blazes the international golf scene.
Teen tennis sensation Alex Eala is making tennis popular again in the Philippines.
She has been making heads turn in the international stage competing as a scholar of the Rafa Nadal Tennis Academy.
She won her first grand slam juniors’ title last year when she partnered with Priska Madelyn Nugroho of Indonesia in the 2020 Australian Open Girls’ Doubles, beating the duo of defeated Živa Falkner and Matilda Mutavdzic in the finals.
At 15, Eala reached the peak of her girls’ junior rankings at world no. 2 after reaching the semifinals of the 2020 French Open singles.
She has a career-high World Tennis Association singles’ ranking of 505 she achieved in August last year.
The 16-year-old never stops competing to earn more points and learning to enhance her skills.
She is one of the 44 junior and pro players, who will receive Grand Slam Player Grants this year from the International Tennis Federation.
Currently ranked no. 12 in the world junior girls, Eala and 43 others will each get grants of up to $25,000 for competition-related costs, funded by the Grand Slam Player Development Program, to help them in their development and enable them to compete at Grand Slam tournaments.
“The Grand Slam Player Development Programme was established by the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments in 1986 to encourage and increase competitive opportunities for players from developing tennis regions,” the ITF said in a statement.
Also included in the list are girls’ world no.1 Petra Marcinko, no. 5 Victoria Jiminez Kazintseva, and no.9 Solana Sierra.
Caballero said sports agencies in the country have already figured out the winning recipe, they just have to remain focused and supportive of the athletes.
“It really takes an entire nation to make it possible. And I hope this road map will be used and polished further for our future Olympians and world title holders,” she said.
Filipina athletes with global excellence are growing in number and will continue to make the country proud.