Young Filipinos nation’s saving grace in Asiad
GUANGZHOU—Ironically, some of the biggest victories of the Philippine delegation in the 16th Asian Games may be found in the bottom-scraping losses that piled up outside the country’s medal tally.
Swimmer Jasmine Alkhaldi could not swim her way out of the heats. But she is 17. Taekwondo jin Pauline Lopez bowed to Youth Olympics silver medalist Dana Touran of Jordan in her second match, but not before standing in the cusp of a semifinal appearance—and an assured bronze medal. She is 14.
And the young turks of the shooting team?
“I think for all of us, we really didn’t do too good,” said 15-year-old Jayson Valdez, now the Philippine record holder for rifle.
No, but those defeats highlight the silver medal won by 16-year-old Miguel Tabuena even more.
“Not many 16-year-olds can say they won a silver medal in the Asian Games,” said Tabuena after finishing second in the men’s individual golf tournament.
“His victory is a validation of the program that we’ve put in golf,” said Tommy Manotoc, coach of the men’s team who fought for Tabuena’s inclusion in the Asiad squad.
But even in the defeats—some overwhelming—suffered by these athletes, there is hope that sports officials will get what knowledgeable sports officials have long advocated.
“It’s time to really find talents in the grassroots, among our young,” said Joey Romasanta, the PH chief of mission who used to be the director of Project: Gintong Alay, still the most successful sports program the country has seen. “And there’s the victory for the delegation, that we managed to send young athletes who could gain valuable experience from all this.”
Competing vs Asia’s best
“It’s amazing just to be able to compete against the best athletes in Asia,” said Alkhaldi.
Nathaniel “Tac” Padilla, who called the inclusion of young shooters an “investment” said the future is bright for athletes who know what it takes to compete in elite competitions. Padilla’s shooters, who rose from the ranks of his National Youth Development Program, were visibly overwhelmed by the competition and faced tough criticisms here.
“This was really more for experience,” said 18-year-old Mark Manosca of air pistol.
“Of course, you want to prove yourself because not every athlete gets an Asian Games ticket,” said Charisse Palma, 19. “If you ask me, we need to have a chance to feel what it feels like in a big event. We need these competitions to improve.”
The Asian Games are generally regarded as the next biggest multisport event after the Olympics. And while it is easy for countries like host China, which ran roughshod over the other countries in the medal tally, to send only its elite athletes, the Philippines is caught in a dilemma: Send only winnable athletes or include prodigies who may end up getting their behinds handed to them.
Romasanta believes he has found a middle ground.
“One of the things that stood out was that originally, we had planned to send just 126 athletes,” Romasanta said. “And all the athletes who won medals this year were already in that list.”
In other words, the Philippine Olympic Committee, bowing to consistent lobbying from national sports associations, padded—and spent for—the delegation with athletes who lost.
“I really think we should stop sending athletes who will add to the losses,” said Romasanta. “Except, of course, if we can send young athletes who can benefit from the experience.”
Shooter Alyanna Chuatoco had already competed in international tournaments before the Asiad. But even then, the moment she stepped into her slot, she was simply overwhelmed.
“Everything here was so big, so high-tech,” she said. “I got so nervous I failed to manage my time. I wasted so many minutes before I finally got my first shot off because I was so nervous.”
“The next day, I was so much more settled and I realized that because of this experience, nothing can surprise me anymore.”
In a highly politicized sector such as Philippine sports, something as intangible as experience hardly counts in an argument. But to deny the country’s young hopefuls this experience would have been a defeat in itself for Philippine sports, Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski believes.
“I remember in my time, they said only those who have had previous SEA Games experience can play in the coming SEA Games,” said Jaworski, the flag-bearer for Team Philippines in these Games. “If you really think about it, where do we start with training our young athletes then?”
The danger with the country’s three-gold, four-silver, nine-bronze haul in the Asiad threatens to derail the youth movement that has been the silver lining of the Philippine campaign here.
“The experience we gave our young athletes here is worth the slots we gave them,” Romasanta said. “Some of these young athletes were coming to me, saying sorry. I told them, you’re young, learn from this.”
Playing side by side with Asia’s best alone will lift the young athletes when they get home. Romasanta believes that watching their opponents perform live can already be a big boost because it gives these young athletes a look at what it takes to rise to the top.
“When they get home, they’ll raise the level of their training immediately,” he said.
“I just have to train a little harder,” said US-schooled Lopez. “Hopefully I can get the chance to represent the country again and do better the next time around.”
“Our participation here really taught us a lot to add to the things we learned in the country,” said Palma, a food tech major at University of Santo Tomas who has thrown every spare time she has in school into her training.
Manosca, for one, said he’s seen the shooting veterans—some twice his age—do their thing. And he hopes to apply their techniques in training.
After all, it’s not as if these athletes are freeloaders or tourists who are looking for a quick travel fix.
They have sporting dreams, too. Chuatoco, in fact, giggles at the thought of going up the podium to receive an Olympic medal.
“That’s every athletes’ dream,” she said. “I have a long way to go before I get there. SEA Games, Asian Games and other competitions. But, of course, every athlete dreams of winning in the Olympics someday.”
She is 16.
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