Filipinos of the Year 2019: Team Philippines in the 30th SEA Games
EDITOR’S NOTE: Every year since 1991, the Philippine Daily Inquirer seeks to recognize the Filipino individual or group who, in the judgment of the newspaper’s editors, made the most positive impact on the life of the nation.
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It was early in December at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games and the Philippines was revving up its medal machine.
Agatha Wong, fresh from winning her second gold in wushu in front of an adoring, albeit occasionally overzealous, crowd, was talking of shutting down for what remained of the year.
“I’ll hibernate,” she told the Inquirer with a chuckle. “I’ve been through a lot this year.”
But barely had Wong begun enjoying the comforts of scheduled dormancy than she was compelled to fend off an altogether new challenge.
Certain parties had flashed the race card to water down her achievement, so she took to Twitter to set them aright. Her masterful response, claiming her Filipino birthright and declaring her love of country, soon turned viral: “My last name’s Chinese & yet I am a Filipina; more than anything. I was born in the Philippines, grew up in the ph & represent the Philippines wherever I go. Mahal ko ang bayan ko. (…) So don’t tell me I’m Chinese kaya ako nanalo. Nanalo ako dahil Pilipino ako, at lalaban ako.”
As of this writing, that post has generated 630 replies, mostly avowals of support, more than 6,200 retweets and 62,400 likes.
Make no mistake about it: Agatha Wong is Filipino. And not just any ordinary Filipino. She is part of a collective known as Team Philippines, a golden group that conquered its regional rivals at the recent SEA Games and brought pride to a country beset by adversity on the geopolitical and judicial fronts and ravenous for every piece of good news it could get.
Team Philippines provided pride in torrents, plucking medals in almost all categories all the way to bagging the overall championship of the SEA Games. In the end, the record was a thrilling 149 golds, 117 silvers and 121 bronzes, more than enough for the Philippines to rule the regional Olympics for the first time since 2005, the last time it sat atop the medal tally.
It was no ordinary biennial meet that the national athletes conquered. For this sterling feat, the Inquirer voted Team Philippines its 2019 Filipinos of the Year.
Pedal to the metal
Every year since 1991, the Philippine Daily Inquirer seeks to recognize the Filipino who, in the judgment of the newspaper, made the most positive impact on the life of the nation.
The 30th edition of the SEA Games was wedged between one of the more successful Asian Games runs in recent history and a looming Olympic Games offering hope for an end to the Philippines’ gold drought.
Powered by female athletes, the Philippines won four golds in the Indonesia Asiad in 2018—the most in 12 years—to generate momentum going into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
But momentum is only as good as an object’s mass multiplied by its velocity. So for that slim slice of success to snowball into a legitimate push for the country’s first Olympic gold, Team Philippines needed to increase either its size or the speed by which it hurtled toward its goal.
It did both Fielding athletes in 56 sports, Team Philippines was on pedal-to-the-metal mode right on Day One of the competitions, harvesting 22 golds to jump to the top of the medal tally early on.
It never let up from there. Buoyed by roaring audiences—including some who, as Wong put it, cheered at inopportune moments because of their “unfamiliarity with the sport”—Team Philippines displayed what an Inquirer editor called a representation of “the triumph of the Filipino Spirit against adversity and hopelessness.”
Said another editor: “Despite all odds, on and off the playing field, our athletes performed very well, exceeding more than everybody’s expectations.” Said yet another: “Their collective triumph was just the sort of face-saving act the country needed from what started as an international embarrassment of alleged massive corruption, overspending and logistical mayhem.”
In fact, Team Philippines started the 30th edition of the SEA Games in the worst possible way, backed into a corner over accusations of corruption and flagrant overspending by the event’s organizers.
If not for a proathletes ceasefire on calls for the scrutiny and punishment of poachers of taxpayer money, the enduring symbol of the SEA Games would have been a P55-million cauldron, the role of which was reduced to a pretaped cameo during the lighting ritual.
But the national athletes punched their way out of that corner. Dancing into the cavernous Philippine Arena to a catchy 1970s tune at the opening ceremony, Team Philippines began steering the narrative toward a different direction.
The next morning, John Chicano scored the first gold for the Philippines when he ruled the men’s triathlon. Kim Mangrobang also bagged a gold in the women’s division. In between the two triathletes’ triumphs, Wong topped the taijiquan tournament for the first of her two golds in the SEA Games.
Hidilyn et al. And the Philippine medal machine started humming as the big names showed up and delivered big time.
The weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz struck gold for the first time in the SEA Games—a pleasant development given her silver medal in the Olympic Games (Rio de Janiero, 2016) and gold medal in the Asian Games (Indonesia, 2018).
The normal medal trajectory for national athletes is almost always SEA Games first, Asian Games next and Olympics last.
The gymnast Carlos Yulo, who sprang into contention as a dark horse for the Philippines’ first Olympic gold after becoming a world champion last year, rocked Rizal Memorial Coliseum on his way to two golds and five silvers.
The Philippines’ arnis and dancesport teams grabbed the gold medals and left other countries competing for crumbs.
The press refocused its coverage on the awe-inspiring performances of the national athletes. On social media, the buzz went from disgust over bloated budgets to victory cheers. Yes, social media. National athletes have had to perform in venues blanketed thick with high expectations.
Yulo, for example, cited the expectant crowd as the cause of jitters that made him lose focus. “In Germany, nobody knew me,” he said. “Here, everybody knows me.”
And in the SEA Games, Team Philippines also had to deal with something that was never a factor in previous outings: the digital glare of a judgmental virtual audience hugely populated by trolls.
The digital age has allowed athletes to build even more bridges to connect with their followers where once they had to depend solely on the mainstream media. Weightlifter Diaz is one of those who know how to use social platforms wisely, turning to them to shed light on some of the problems hounding Filipino athletes. But that skill comes with a cost.
“There’s nothing solely positive or solely negative when it comes to social media,” Wong said. “On the positive side, you get to promote your sport. On the negative side, there will always be people who will not be proud of your success. Successful people will always have haters and bashers.”
Which was exactly what Wong encountered after her SEA Games success. “I’m not the first athlete to experience that,” she said. “There are athletes who bring pride to the country and their last name doesn’t sound Filipino enough. Hence, the bashers come out.”
Indeed. Many members of Team Philippines are mixed-race athletes born and/or raised abroad.
Athletics, swimming, football and basketball had several mixed-race athletes competing in the SEA Games. Curiously, Wong isn’t much of a mixed-race athlete: Her Chinese origin is diluted to about 25 percent, according to her mother. But that did not stop the digital bullies.
So Wong took to social media to quiet those bashers. Meanwhile, Team Philippines continued silencing its foes.
World champion Nesthy Petecio and the national boxers delivered gold medals in dominating fashion. So did EJ Obiena and the national tracksters.
Margielyn Didal powered a golden spree by national skateboarders. Obiena has booked his trip to Tokyo. Petecio and Didal are highly likely to follow suit. Swimming ended a decadelong gold drought.
Taekwondo delivered, as did judo, karate, softball, kickboxing and a host of other sports that kept the wave rolling. The gold count kept skyrocketing as more stories of triumph over adversity—and historical heartache—kept flooding media platforms.
The national women’s basketball team had not won a medal in the SEA Games before. And their recent string of losses had come in the most crushing ways. But right here, at home, the hoop girls were finally crowned champions and wrote herstory in such a dramatic manner that renowned basketball coach Tim Cone, who had just steered the men’s squad to a gold medal romp, was moved to declare: “I think the women winning the gold is really the story today, not us.”
In the end, every Filipino athlete was the story, whether they won gold, silver, bronze, or none at all. The Filipino athlete sidetracked a Senate investigation, but the issue requires quick resolution. Even with a guaranteed P100-million war chest backing the Philippines’ Olympic dream, the Filipino athlete is grossly underfunded compared to regional, much less global, rivals.
And to account for every centavo spent for the SEA Games with the aim of making sure that taxpayer money for sports is funneled to Filipino athletes is a sure way of sustaining momentum in that quest for the next Filipino of the Year—the first Filipino Olympic gold medalist.
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A total of 46 editors and other editorial officers of the Inquirer voted for the 2019 Filipino of the Year. They chose from among five nominees: Team Philippines in the 30th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games; Antonio Carpio, retired senior associate justice of the Supreme Court; Quezon City Judge Jocelyn Solis-Reyes; new young Mayors Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso of Manila and Vico Sotto of Pasig City; and Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong The Filipino SEA Games athletes took the honor at 20, or 43.5 percent of the vote.
Carpio is no stranger to accolades, among the loudest being “the best chief justice the Philippines never had” (in the words of Associate Justice Marvic Leonen) and “the staunchest defender of our country’s maritime rights and entitlements under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” (in the words of former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario). He has resumed writing a weekly column in Inquirer Opinion.
Reyes, presiding judge of Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 221, delivered the guilty verdict on prominent members of the Ampatuan clan accused of the ghastly murder of 58 people, mostly media workers, in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre.
In taking on the formidable case, she showed that justice can be achieved though it grinds exceedingly slow. Domagoso and Sotto toppled political monoliths in their respective cities and continue to make waves with reforms and other actions beneficial to their constituencies. Magalong lifted the veil off the so-called ninja cops, members of the police force who commit corrupt acts with impunity. In his new job, he may yet succeed in arresting the decline of the fondly remembered “City of Pines,” the Philippines’ summer capital.