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Country owes Villanueva a lot

Our generation of midlifers listened baside our parents when broadcaster Joe Cantada did the blow-by-blow account of the late boxer Anthony Villanueva’s attempt to win a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.  This was light years before the Internet and satellite television but we had radio and Cantada’s booming voice to put pictures into our heads.

We did not hear the expected proclamation that the Philippines had finally nailed a gold medal because the Russian Stanislav Stepashkin earned the nod of the majority of the judges. But despite Villanueva being “robbed of a gold,” as Cantada analyzed, we were thrilled that a Filipino came that close and was an achiever on the world stage.

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Of course, there were other Filipinos before who had won bronze medals in the Olympics like swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso, hurdler Miguel White and Villanueva’s father Cely, also a boxer. But Anthony was the first Filipino to win a silver medal. He was the Onyok Velasco of a later era who also won a silver in boxing in Atlanta in 1996 but had the benefit of a live coverage of his fight even if it was after midnight here at home.

So there was sadness when we heard of Villanueva’s recent passing. We knew of his struggles to survive, taking on odd jobs in the United States and here and not really making any headway. He did not receive any windfall of cash because of his Olympic triumph. He tried his hand at professional boxing but did not have the same skills for the brutal realities of a sport outside amateur pugilism.

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It was a life of trying to meet ends, of survival.

True enough, once the praises and lights disappear after the triumph, the athlete has to contend with the reality of making a living. It seems easy enough to blame government or some other authority for Villanueva’s sad plight. The easy equation is that the country owes Villanueva a lot and to a large extent it does.  However, the harsh realities of other priorities and meager resources render many of our former great athletes helpless and often, penniless.

Villanueva cannot be faulted for not trying, but at least some form of openings or breaks could have been afforded him in order to make a living. There was supposedly some pension but even that was meager given life’s nasty expenses.

The painful lesson is that athletes, and all of us for that matter, cannot rely on anybody else to make our beds or put food on tables. And when the ravages of illness and old age sneak up stealthily, we must be prepared to delay the inevitable in order to maintain lives for others who depend or care for us.

Hopefully, that generation of radio listeners who waited for Cantada’s account will never forget Villanueva. Others will always remember that a Filipino boxer came very close to winning a gold medal.  The effort alone was enough and should remain part of our collective cherished sports memories.

Let us also hope that Villanueva’s life and times will remind athletes and all those who support sports that the games of life are played beyond the fields and gymnasiums of athletic battle.

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TAGS: Anthony Villanueva, Boxing, Commentary
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