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PH off to ‘good start’ in COVID-hit Olympics

By: - Sports Editor / @ftjochoaINQ
/ 05:40 AM July 24, 2021

AT LAST, THE GAMES BEGIN There are no cheering multitudes to welcome the athletes at Tokyo’s New National Stadium as the 32nd Olympiad—delayed by a year and toned down because of the coronavirus pandemic—finally kicks off on Friday night. —REUTERS

TOKYO—In the empty spaces at the New National Stadium where spectators would have sat down and cheered on the world’s fastest, highest and strongest, there was an air of optimism and inspiration that only the Olympics can muster.

And here, on Friday night, optimism and inspiration came in steady streams as athletes from all corners of the world marched into a padlocked venue to officially mark the opening of the Tokyo Olympics.

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That stream of positivity was interrupted only by stark reminders that these are not your grandfather’s—or even your older brother’s—Olympics: Athletes marching with obvious distances from each other, masks on everyone’s faces, a moment of silence during the ceremony to remember and honor the lives lost because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the absent fans, who were locked out of the venues because of health measures.

“This is a different Olympics, special,” said Hidilyn Diaz, the silver medalist in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics who spearheads perhaps the most hopeful delegation in this year’s Summer Games—a Philippine team believing that this is the year a country’s gold medal drought ends.

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Promising starts

And the day could not have started better for the Filipinos.

Rower Cris Nievarez, a long shot for a medal, produced a thin slice of triumph when he advanced to the quarterfinals of the men’s single sculls at Sea Forest Waterway earlier in the day.

In a world where people relearned the value of celebrating little victories, Team Philippines soaked in the minute triumphs of Nievarez’s accomplishment. He is the first rower to have made it to the quarterfinals in the Olympics.

“It feels great, first race, first try; this is for the country,” said the 21-year-old Nievarez, who placed third in Heat 5 of the event in 7:22.97.

He finished behind Croatia’s Damir Martin (7:09.17), the 2016 Rio Olympics silver medalist, and Russian Alexander Vyazovkin (7:14.95), the world indoor champion.

“It’s a good start for Team Philippines here in the Tokyo Olympics,” said Philippine Olympic Committee president Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino. “Nievarez qualifying in the quarterfinals on the first day is a good testament that our athletes have prepared well, despite the pandemic.”

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‘Isolympics’

If Nievarez’s morning feat was a brief dose of hope for the Philippines, the opening ceremony was a much-needed booster shot for the country.

There were fireworks, artful performances and all the pomp associated with Olympic opening ceremonies. Long suspected to be watered down because of the pandemic, Friday’s ceremony provided a heavy dose of color, drama and meaning to an event desperately searching for an identity.

It had been labeled the least popular edition of the Games. “Isolympics,” some called it, for the restrictive measures imposed on Olympic delegates. Tracking apps installed on phones, frequent testing, regular updates on health apps. These were part of security measures implemented as Tokyo battled a surge of COVID-19 infections that triggered calls for the postponement—or total cancellation—of the Games.

But as strict as the measures were, the implementation was lax. At times, it seemed that authorities were relying on people having some sort of honor code—bushido, the samurai called it—and adhere to the measures even when there were very few people to enforce it.

People in supposed lockdowns really had no deterring measures to dissuade them from going out in public. At the New National Stadium, spectators were barred from entering, but there were little attempts to decamp lots of people outside the stadium who were hoping to catch a glimpse of the opening ceremony.

Yulo, Petecio

The Philippine delegation adhered strictly to the protocols, employing even stricter measures of its own, in an attempt to protect the 19 athletes regarded to be the best the country has ever flown—or shipped—to the quadrennial meet.

“We’re good for at least one gold,” Tolentino said.

On Saturday, two reigning world champions will get to prove just how good this batch of Olympians is.

Carlos Yulo of gymnastics and Nesthy Petecio of boxing will try to fan the spark lit by Nievarez as they try to validate their statuses as gold medal favorites.

Yulo kicks off his medal bid at Ariake Gymnastics Centre in the preliminary rounds of gymnastics.

“He’s ready. He’s strong,” said Cynthia Carrion, the country’s gymnastics chief.

‘Reap what you sow’

Petecio, meanwhile, faces Congo’s Marcelat Sakobi Matshu at Kokugikan Stadium, where she will be one of the favorites in the women’s featherweight (54 to 57 kilograms).

She qualified for Tokyo through her rankings even though she failed to snatch an outright berth in an Olympic qualifying tournament.

“You reap what you sow,” Petecio said on missing an automatic ticket to Tokyo. “We sowed since 2018, 2019 and that allowed us to reap the fruits of our labor, our rankings.”

She is certainly not leaning on her credentials as a reigning world champ here.

“That’s in the past, that’s done, This is a new medal to chase. We can’t bring our records to this new fight,” Petecio said.

Kurt Barbosa, meanwhile, faces huge odds in his opening bout in the -58kg class of men’s taekwondo.

Barbosa, ranked 16th, faces top seed Jang Jun of Korea, the 2019 world champion who is expected to run away with the gold here.

Capping the Filipinos stint in Day 2 of the Olympics is swimmer Remedy Rule, who will see action in the 100-meter fly heats.

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