by Eddie Alinea
RIO DE JANEIRO – The opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics, one that’s festive but far less expensive than it was originally planned to be, will also mark the start of the Philippines campaign to end a medal drought that has lasted 20 long years.
There are 13 Filipino athletes among the more than 10,000 eyeing medals in 28 Olympic sports. They are the best there is in the country of over a hundred million.
The Filipino athletes, led by three-time Olympians Marestella Torres of track and field and Hidilyn Diaz of weightlifting, have gone through the eye of the needle just to get here.
“The crop of 13 athletes we have they are well prepared and there’s nothing more we can ask of these people. They are here because they are the best in the Philippines,” said Filipino chef-de-mission Jose Romasanta on the eve of the opening ceremony.
The historic Maracana Stadium, which built to host the 1950 World Cup, will be the venue of the opening ceremony Friday night. There will be songs and dances from over 5,000 volunteers.
It will be a typical Brazilian party.
The Games will commence amid threats on security, political instability and the dreaded Zika virus, which has forced some of the biggest names in golf and a few other sports to withdraw their participation.
A Filipino golfer, Angelo Que, was one of those who pulled out.
Romasanta, however, said the rest of the Filipinos who qualified for this year’s Olympics, are here to carry on, and join the thousands and thousands of athletes and officials from 206 countries and the Refugee Olympic Team in the world’s biggest sporting event.
“Everything else is the least of the concern for our athletes. Their concern is being able to further improve and enhance their competitiveness until game time,” he said.
“They are not really concerned about or distracted by other things except focus on what they need to do. That’s what they are eagerly anticipating,” said the vice president of the Philippine Olympic Committee.
Aside from Torres and Diaz, others carrying the fight for the Philippines are boxers Rogen Ladon and Charly Suarez, swimmers Jasmine Alkhaldi and Jessie Khing Lacuna, track and field’s Eric Cray and Mary Joy Tabal, another weightlifter, Neestor Colonia, and taekwondo jin Kirstie Elaine Alora, judoka Kodo Nakano, golfer Miguel Tabuena and table tennis’ Ian Lariba.
Cray and Nakano are arriving in Rio just hours before the opening ceremony that is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. and expected to last late in the evening. Tabuena is flying in Saturday.
Then three of them, Lariba, Lacuna and Suarez, will kick off the Philippine campaign the following day, when they see action and hope to stay alive.
“It’s when and where the real business begins. And that’s what our athletes are eagerly anticipated. They are all going to do what they do best,” said Romasanta.
“It’s something which they have to prove to themselves, and they will compete as hard as they can,” he added.
Lariba, a 21-year-old native of Cagayan de Oro, is the first table tennis player from the Philippines to see action in the Olympics. For her first match, she goes up against Congo’s Han Xing, at around noon here, which is close to midnight in Manila.
Lacuna will swim in the men’s 400m freestyle, hoping to look good against swimmers way faster than him. Then Suarez, a legitimate medal hope, takes on Great Britain’s Joseph Cordina in the early bouts of the lightweight division.
Romasanta said there’s no point pressuring the athletes to win the medal.
“Let’s just take things as they come. Whoever the opponent will be will be faced with equal competitiveness by our athletes,” he said.
Lariba, ranked No. 297 in the world, is facing someone who’s ranked No. 125. But the first-time Olympian from the Philippines is not looking at the numbers.
“I talked to Ian and she’s not worried about any opponent she will face. Inevitably, she will have to face anyone of them,” said the chef-de-mission.
Security is tight in and around Rio, which is facing political unrest following the impeachment of its President. The magnitude of the event also makes this Olympics a clear target for terrorist attacks.
The past two days were marred by bomb scares at the Olympic Aquatic Center and the Athletes Village. This has forced Brazil to tighten the security, as if 85,000 police and military personal that’s been deployed to protect the Games are not enough.
“People are aware. Anything left unattended is something we should worry about,” said Romasanta of the twin bomb scares the past two days.
But nothing will stop the Olympics – not now.
“Let’s get it on,” said the Filipino chef-de-mission.