LA Exclusive: POC president Abraham Tolentino on Our Tokyo Athletes and Their Chances to Win That Elusive Gold - The Scene

“We just continued preparing the athletes. The fact that the Games are pushing through is still something I consider to be a positive outcome.”

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A full year after it has been pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Summer Olympic Games will finally open starting tomorrow, July 23, in Tokyo.

This marks the Japanese capital’s second staging of the quadrennial event, the first being in 1965, which showed the world the emergence of post-World War II Japan.

Scheduled until August 8, this upcoming edition of the large-scale sporting event is unlike any before it. It marked the first time a Games was ever delayed or rescheduled. The organizing committee will also be attempting to carry it out in a pandemic-safe bubble amid rising cases in Japan, as well as widespread opposition among its population and even participating countries.

Notwithstanding these obvious challenges, the Games are pushing through.

Opportunity in setbacks

When it was announced that the Games will be moved to a later date, Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) President Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino said they were already hard at work preparing for what was expected to be a July 2020 sporting event.

Tolentino was saddened to hear of the postponement.

“There were missed opportunities because of the pandemic,” he tells Lifestyle Asia. “Some athletes tested positive for the virus and missed their qualifying competition. Others could not qualify at all as competitions were cancelled and current rankings became the basis for who competes at the Olympics.”

COVID-19 protocols are so tough, too, there were even athletes who could not obtain documents like visa and enter host countries of qualifying tournaments.

But in setbacks, Tolentino also saw the opportunities.

“We had all this extra time and we took advantage of it,” he says. “We just continued preparing the athletes. The fact that the Games are pushing through is still something I consider to be a positive outcome.”

Meet our athletes

Since the country’s first participation at the 1924 Paris Olympics, the country has won 10 medals—three silvers and seven bronzes. The latest Olympic medalist is Hidilyn Diaz, who bagged silver in weightlifting during the 2016 Rio Games.

For Tokyo, the country is sending a total of 19 athletes, the biggest Philippine delegation to the Games since the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Apart from Diaz, fellow weightlifter Elreen Ando is also seeing action at the Olympics. It marks her debut at the quadrennial event. Nesthy Petecio, Eumir Marcial, Irish Magno, and Carlo Paalam, meanwhile, make up the boxing team.

Golf is also represented in the delegation through Yuka Saso, Bianca Pagdanganan, and Juvic Pagunsan, while last-minute qualifiers are swimmers Luke Gebbie and Remedy Rule.

Other athletes include Jayson Valdez for shooting, Carlos Yulo for gymnastics, Ernest John Obiena for pole vaulting, Kristina Knott for track and field, Cris Nievarez for rowing, Kurt Babosa for taekwondo, Kiyomi Watanabe for judo, and Margielyn Didal for skateboarding.

All these athletes are vying to take home the elusive Olympic gold medal.

“There were many obstacles but we were very lucky,” Tolentino says. “The aura and the momentum seem different this time around. This might be the chance for us to finally bring [it] home.”

The hope for one does not seem far-fetched.

Diaz, who returns to the Games for the fourth time, is likely to better her runner up placing from the previous Olympics. She officially qualified for Tokyo by lifting a 90kg snatch in the Asian Weightlifting Championships last April.

Leading up to the 2020 Olympics, she won gold medals in the 2019 SEA Games and Roma 2020 World Cup. She is currently fourth in the world rankings of the International Weightlifting Federation.

Obiena is the first Filipino athlete to qualify for the Olympics. He did this by clearing 5.81 meters in an outdoor pole-vaulting tournament in Italy. He has been smashing records since then. Currently the Philippine nation record-holder, Obiena has cleared 5.87 meters in a competition in Poland weeks before the Tokyo Games, smashing the 5.85-meter record he set in Germany in June.

Yulo is the first Filipino and male Southeast Asian gymnast to win in the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships—a floor exercise bronze in 2018 and a gold medal in 2019, which gave him a ticket to Tokyo Olympics.

Currently ranked eighth in the world golf rankings, Saso is also expected to be in peak condition, following her historic win at last month’s US Women’s Open. It is her first major title, among other achievements such as individual and team gold medals in the 2018 Asian Games.

Eyes are also on fellow 2018 Asian Games gold medallist Didal, who will be representing the country in skateboarding’s debut at the Olympics. The trailblazer of Philippine skateboarding has two other gold medals to her name from the Game of Skate and Street Skateboarding events in the 2019 SEA Games. She is currently 13th in women’s skateboarding world rankings.

Are we ready?

With the elusive Olympic gold medal on the line, Tolentino says he and the rest of POC have done what they can for the delegates.

To prepare the athletes, the Philippine Sports Commission have spent about P351 million just in the first six months of 2020 to assist numerous Filipino athletes hoping to represent the country at the quadrennial event. This amount, according to a report by the Philippine News Agency, has financed athlete trainings and competitions here and abroad, as well as airfare, food, and accommodation.

All athletes under POC—including Olympic-bound and even those expected to compete at the 2021 SEA Games in Vietnam this coming November—have already been vaccinated, too.

Allowances have been secured, as well, despite cuts to the initial P100 million budget due to the pandemic. “When allowances ran out last year, I rallied for it to be brought back,” The POC president says. “In the end, through Bayanihan I, as well as sponsors always helping with whatever is needed for our athletes to be in top, world class condition, that was taken care of.”

At P48 million, Tolentino says the budget will also take care of travel expenses to Tokyo and back, hotel and accommodation for quarantine, food, mandatory COVID-19 tests, and insurance.

Protocols to follow

But even with all this support, a triumphant Olympics is not guaranteed for the Philippine team.

“The toughest challenge of this coming Games is not the competition itself,” Tolentino says. “It’s facing the reality that there’s still a pandemic and that athletes can be infected.”

Japanese citizens have raised concerns about this, too. In a series of telephone surveys of randomly selected respondents conducted in April, May, and June this year, the majority voted that the Games should be cancelled.

Participating countries like South Korea, Japan, Brazil, Great Britain, and Germany also agree. The global country average of respondents from 28 countries who think the Olympics should not go ahead in 2021 is at 57 percent.

In response to such concerns, the organizing committee has set up a bubble, where all participants must strictly follow safety protocols.

Delegates have to quarantine for seven days and must undergo a PCR test every 72 hours. Upon arrival at the venue, participants will be tested for COVID-19 every two days.

“Protocols are also strict in the sense that delegates can only go from the Athlete’s Village to the venue and back,” Tolentino adds. “They cannot go anywhere else so no sightseeing for everyone.”

Schedule of competitions

Many of the Filipino athletes will immediately go into competition once the Games begin.

On opening day, Nievarez will join the preliminary heats in rowing.

All four boxers, including Opening Ceremony flagbearer Marcial, will start competing within three days of the Olympics, from July 24 to 26. Depending on the results, they will be in matches scheduled until August 7.

Watanabe will have all her judo matches on July 27.

Barbosa, Valdez, and Didal will start competing in their respective sports on July 24, 25, and 26, respectively.

All three golfers, meanwhile, will start competition as early as July 29 for Pagunsan in men’s individual, and as early as August 4 for Saso and Pagdanganan for women’s individual.

Yulo’s chance to qualify for the gymnastics final on July 28 will be on July 24.

For men’s pole vault, Obiena won’t be competing until July 31.

Round 1 heats for Knott in track and field starts on August 2.

Diaz and Ando’s competitions will be separate. The former will be on July 26, while the latter, on July 27.

Rule will compete first in the 200-meter freestyle category of women’s swimming on July 26, and the 200-meter butterfly the following day.

Gebbie’s schedule starts on July 27 for 100-meter freestyle, while his participation in the 50-meter freestyle will be on July 30.

Reward for medallists

Tolentino says he will be joining the Filipino athletes throughout the Games to closely monitor, manage, and encourage all of them.

It’s the kind of support the delegation needs as stakes have become even higher for the athletes. Many sports patrons have offered additional incentives to athletes who will bring home medals.

The Philippine government, Manny V. Pangilinan Sports Foundation, and San Miguel Corporation owner Ramon Ang will each grant P10 million, P5 million, and P2 million for gold, silver, and bronze medallists, respectively.

House Deputy Speaker Mikee Romero has committed an additional P3 million for a gold, P2 million for a silver, and P1 million for a bronze.

This means that an Olympic gold medallist at the Tokyo Olympics will receive incentives amounting to P33 million.

With what has been a long-awaited Games, made more challenging by the pandemic, Tolentino asks the Filipino people to cheer on the athletes.

“Let’s all pray for them and their safety so that their efforts will not go to waste,” he says. “Even if they are vaccinated, they can still get infected. That’s the dilemma, so everyone’s support for the athletes—the cream of the crop and the people who give honor to our country—will be much-appreciated. We’ve seen what they can do during the 2019 SEA Games. Hopefully, the Tokyo Olympics will also be our time to shine.”

Banner Photo by Ryunosuke Kikuno on Unsplash

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