The 50 greatest
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - December 14, 2019 - 12:00am

The fervor behind the glorious performance of Filipino athletes in the 30th Southeast Asian Games is starting to die down. As the country basks in the afterglow, the next question is where these performances rank throughout history, where they place among the pantheon of Philippine sports immortals. Another ticklish question. In the meantime, there is a book that has likewise sought to define greatness. And it was not easy to put together.

For the first time in its history of more than eight decades, the Philippines Yearbook has published a sports edition. And it has gone to great lengths to make the time memorable, a true collectible.

“The Fifty Greatest Filipino Athletes of All Time” is finally available, initially through telephone and e-mail orders. Written and co-edited by The STAR’s Joaquin Henson and yours truly, it is a very human attempt to encapsulate the depth and breadth of Philippine sports excellence within the confines of such a finite list. It is our thank you for a lifetime of memories. The mandate given us by publisher Vernon Go was simple: who, in our humble but experienced opinions, should be included in a list of all-time greats. Tough ask, but also so humbling, challenging, fulfilling and scary at the same time. And it was limited to athletes only. Also, we needed all-new photos of those athletes or their next of kin. This was an equally daunting test. Many on our respective lists has passed away long ago, in some cases, even before either of us had been born. How would we find them? Luckily, we had help from friends in media and sports in general.

There were all the obvious choices: Manny Pacquiao, Paeng Nepomuceno, Hidilyn Diaz, Lydia de Vega – who are all on the cover. Also Efren Reyes, Akiko Thomson, Elma Muros, Bong Coo, Onyok Velasco, Gerry Peñalosa, Caloy Loyzaga, Robert Jaworski, Ramon Fernandez. Even before we could define who could make it, we knew who were shoo-ins. Now, we had to decide why, and start putting words into the feelings. Words that would encompass their greatness in its original context. Whew.

First off, what achievements would count? For this writer, being the first in your field carried a lot of weight. Olympic, Asian Games and multiple SEA Games gold medalists, world record holders and pioneers were obvious front-runners. Certain teams would be considered, with one representative for each. We would have to be able to justify the number of athletes in certain sports like basketball, boxing, billiards, bowling. And how do you weigh accomplishments in one era against modern achievements? For example, in the past, athletes had to travel by boat and train for a month simply to get to Europe. Now, they just hop on a plane. One of my athletes was so far ahead of his time, organized competitions only began when he was already 60 years old. And how do you balance longevity against singular accomplishments, popularity versus excellence? Honestly, I had a few sleepless nights, the sports fan in me wanted a hundred, two hundred names in the book. But the mandate was 50. It was excruciatingly exciting.

For the preliminary round, Quinito and I already had 37 common names on our lists. And that was before we had even had the first meeting. That says a lot about who made it, and how painful it was to leave some names out. We were reminded of the overabundance of incredible talent the Philippines has always had in sports. 

Unfortunately, there are some who have been lost to time and could not be traced in the months the project was finished. 1936 Olympic bronze medalist in hurdles Miguel White, for example, died in World War II, and his footsteps were – to us – lost in the fog of history. Fortunately, his contemporaries, our first Olympic basketball team who went to those same Games, could still be traced through the family of team captain Sen. Ambrosio Padilla. There was great consolation in that. Luckily, the children, grandchildren and other loved ones of these legendary figures were so generous with their time, their stories, their memories, adding so much richness behind the scenes. 

Next came the challenge of scheduling the photo shoots. Joel and Ma-Anne Garcia did a yeoman’s job of capturing the essence of each distinct personality. They took magnificent close-ups and faithfully recreated action shots of each. There’s no one better. We traveled all over Metro Manila and to nearby provinces, to Cebu and Iloilo. We took photos with antiques, guns, snakes medals, trophies and a few props in a variety of conditions at all hours of the day. The results are breathtaking. 

All told, the book includes heroes and heroines from arnis, athletics, basketball, billiards, bowling, boxing, football, golf, gymnastics, mixed martial arts, shooting, swimming, weightlifting and others. It is a once-in-a-lifetime project that we did our utmost to do justice to. 

You may order “The Fifty Greatest Filipino athletes of all time for only P2,000 by calling 83327452 or by e-mailing Delivery is free within Metro Manila.

  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with