Golden moments

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

It looks like the country’s first Olympic gold got the Philippine momentum going. Yesterday, boxer Eumir Marcial was assured of a bronze after knocking out his Armenian foe in the first round. He now qualifies for a chance at higher honors. Filipinos have become big Olympic fans.

As of last night, the Philippines was ranked 55th in the Olympic medal tally, thanks to Hidilyn Diaz’s gold medal. Nesthy Petecio is already assured of a silver in women’s featherweight boxing. She could still earn for the country its second Olympic gold this Tuesday.

Boxer Carlo Paalam also advanced to the next round after beating three-time Olympian Mohamed Flissi of Algeria in the men’s flyweight. Golf pro Yuka Saso may also bag a gold this week.

To see the Philippines listed in the Olympic tally with even one gold medal is such a joy to behold. I’ve always wondered why athletes even from impoverished, conflict-torn countries such as Ethiopia could keep winning gold medals in the Olympics, mainly in marathon events.

In our case, Manny Pacquiao has inspired budding boxers across the country. Following Hidilyn’s win, weightlifting is sure to gain popularity. Perhaps 1Pacman party-list Rep. Mikee Romero might even find support for his push for the creation of a Department of Sports.

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According to several accounts (and at least one movie), Nelson Mandela saw the unifying impact of sports on his country torn by apartheid.

Other countries without the deep scars and social divisions faced by South Africa due to apartheid have also understood the impact of sports on national morale. They invest heavily in sports development, beginning their headhunting for potential Olympians as early as grade school, and then providing material and other types of support not only to the children but also their families.

For many countries, participation in the Olympics is a matter of national pride. We can see this in the case of the Russian Olympic Committee, listed in Tokyo as the “ROC” – supposedly a “neutral” team after the country’s athletes became embroiled in a doping scandal that led to a two-year ban from international competitions.

Still, the ROC team has been allowed to wear the Russian colors. The delegation as of last night ranked third in the overall tally in Tokyo with 38 medals: 11 golds, 15 silvers and 12 bronzes. The US ranked first with 54 medals, 20 of them golds, while China placed second with 50 medals, 23 of them golds.

That makes the gold medal of Hidilyn Diaz sweeter, since she bested China’s athlete whom she had faced in the past and was the world record holder. (The Tsinoy in me has to point out though that Hidilyn had a Chinese coach.) As Hidilyn has recounted, her opponent didn’t expect her to win.

We have in fact previously seen how sports can unify the country. Each time Manny Pacquiao has a bout, business nationwide slows to a standstill, and the streets become empty as people find a TV set to watch the fight.

For the first time though, there could be fewer prayers for his victory when Pacquiao faces Errol Spence Jr. on Aug. 21, after politics became entangled with boxing.

Pacquiao, no longer a spring chicken, dreams big, and is now aiming for the highest post in the land after he hangs up his gloves. His own political party is unenthusiastic, and has kicked him out as acting president. Still, the PDP-Laban has not yet ousted him as a member. The speculation is that the party is waiting for the outcome of his bout with Spence.

The fight clearly will no longer be a unifying element. After Pacquiao criticized the policy of the Duterte administration on the West Philippine Sea (attention Hidilyn) and promised to present evidence supporting his allegations of corruption under the current dispensation, it’s doubtful that Malacañang officials will be genuinely cheering for him on Aug. 21.

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Administration officials have found themselves at odds with the athletes who are reaping glory for the country.

Over the weekend, jokes and hilarious images continued to proliferate about Hidilyn’s inclusion in a matrix of personalities allegedly involved in a plot to oust President Duterte. Chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo is getting the worst roasting.

There have been reports about Hidilyn’s camp lamenting the lack of support for her Olympic training from the Philippine government. She got stuck in Malaysia for over a year because of pandemic lockdowns, forcing her to resort to makeshift weights and the kindness of Malaysians to continue her training.

People are wondering why the government could afford to repatriate hundreds of thousands of overseas Filipino workers and welcome back Filipinos returning from all over the planet, even from the UK where the Alpha variant that fueled last summer’s killer COVID surge emerged. But no one could help Hidilyn, who earned an Olympic silver for the country in the 2016 Rio Games, return to the Philippines from neighboring Malaysia.

Facing “The Chiefs” last Thursday on One News, Hidilyn lamented that she was heavily trolled after her inclusion in the matrix, even after her insistence that she was too busy with training to bother about politics, least of all ousting Duterte.

She said diplomatically that she understood that the Philippine Olympic Committee was also hampered by pandemic restrictions, and it wasn’t even certain if the Olympics would push through following its first postponement due to COVID.

The trolling took a toll on her training, she admitted to us, but she got support from the private sector.

Maybe the color-coding attack dogs of the administration will still see yellow in her gold medal. She might be painted red as well, considering her reported preference for red jackets and red lipstick.

President Duterte has already congratulated Hidilyn and urged her to “let bygones be bygones.” This could confuse the color-coding specialists. Should Hidilyn still be damned as dilawan? Maybe they will mix up red and yellow. That will turn into orange, but that’s the color of the Villars – major campaign backers and political allies of Duterte, unless they get ideas about fielding a presidential bet in 2022. Then we’ll see another demolition job against a member of the family.

Mixing politics and sports can be toxic to athletic development. Fortunately, our athletes can ignore the noise and focus on their quest for gold.

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