By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Senior Reporter

IN 2020 the Philippines will take part in the Summer Olympics once again, the 10th since 1984 and 22nd appearance since the country first competed in 1924.

But unlike in previous Olympiads, there is increased confidence in the lead-up to the Tokyo Games that this year could be the year the Philippines wins that elusive first gold medal.

Sports officials said the confidence over 2020 being a golden breakthrough year is not necessarily unwarranted, believing that the athletes are “better prepared” this time and capable of making things happen.

In nearly a century of competing in the Olympics, the Philippines has produced 10 medals to date — three silver and seven bronze.

Boxers Anthony Villanueva (1964) and Mansueto Velasco (1996), and weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz (2016) are the country’s silver medalists while bronze came from swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso (1928 and 1932), high jumper Simeon Toribio (1932), runner Miguel White (1936), and boxers Jose Villanueva (1964), Leopoldo Serantes (1988) and Roel Velasco (1992).

For the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which will take place between July 24 and Aug. 9, two Filipino athletes have qualified — pole-vaulter Ernest John Obiena and gymnast Carlos Yulo — with more expected to join them after Olympic qualifiers in various sports this year.

‘WE HAVE A CHANCE’
“We have a chance definitely,” said Mariano Araneta, Philippine chef de mission to the 2020 Olympics, when asked for his thoughts on how the country would fare in this year’s edition of the sporting spectacle.

“There is always a chance, of course, but this time preparation of our athletes has really been intense. Support is being given to them both by the government and the private sector and they are showing much determination,” added the chef de mission, who is also the president of the Philippine Football Federation.

As of September last year, some P1 billion has been spent by the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) according to reports. The PSC is the agency tasked to oversee training and foreign exposure of Filipino athletes for international competitions, including the recently concluded 30th Southeast Asian Games here and the Olympics.

The PSC, under the leadership of its chairman William Ramirez, has committed sustained support to the athletes and the thorough development of sports through various programs.

Mr. Araneta said the PSC is hoping to field at least 20 athletes for this year’s Olympics, an improvement from the 13-athlete contingent of the Philippines in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

EYE ON TOKYO
Due to the groundbreaking manner Mr. Yulo qualified for the Tokyo Games, many are bullish on the 19-year-old becoming the country’s first-ever Olympic gold medalist aside from his world championship.

Mr. Yulo earned a spot in the Olympics after making the cut in the all-around events at the 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, in October.

Also in the same tournament, the Filipino gymnast won the country’s first-ever world artistic gymnastics gold, making it a double celebration for Philippine gymnastics.

Mr. Yulo bagged gold in the floor exercise final with a score of 15.300, besting Artem Dolgopyat (15.200) of Israel, who finished second, and Ruoteng Xiao (14.933) of China for bronze. In the all-around, Mr. Yulo wound up 10th in the competition.

The Gymnastics Association of the Philippines (GAP) considers it a massive achievement to see one of its own in the Olympics, more so in the person of Mr. Yulo, who has had Tokyo in his sights ever since he moved to Japan in 2016 to hone his skills to be at par with the best in the world.

Mr. Yulo, who picked up the sport at the age of seven, will be the first Philippine gymnast to compete in the Olympics in five decades after Ernesto Beren and Norman Henson in 1968.

In 2016, Mr. Yulo, then only 16, relocated to Tokyo to train under coach Munehiro Kugimiya.

GAP was first cool to the idea but with the insistence of Mr. Yulo’s coach, it eventually agreed, a decision the organization, in hindsight, is thankful to have made.

“We really looked for ways to bring him to Japan after seeing how he would really improve there. The moment when he moved to Japan it was to compete in (the) Tokyo (Games),” said Bettina Pou, GAP secretary-general in an interview.

Ms. Pou said at first it was tough for the young gymnast as he not only had to deal with the tough training but he also had to adjust to a new environment away from his parents.

So difficult was the situation for Mr. Yulo early on, Ms. Pou said, that the young athlete considered giving up altogether.

But when Mr. Yulo eventually adjusted to his new situation and saw his hard work starting to pay off, there was simply no stopping him from going after his goal of making it to the Olympics.

In 2018, when he started competing as a senior, Mr. Yulo began getting valuable points for qualification, consistently winning medals in various international competitions in Melbourne; Baku, Azerbaijan; Doha; and Stuttgart in October clinched it all for him.

“He is very excited for the Olympics. He has achieved his goal and he is now working to be the first gold medalist of the country. And he has a good chance of doing it in the floor exercise. That’s his goal,” said Ms. Pou.

“His mindset is much better. And winning the world championship really boosted his confidence,” she added.

The GAP official said the association is doing everything it can to support Mr. Yulo, who apart from his coach has a psychologist and nutritionist working with him to be in the best possible shape in the Olympics.

Mr. Yulo competed in the 30th SEA Games in December where he won two gold medals (all-round and floor exercise) and five silver (pommel horse, still rings, vault, parallel bars and horizontal bars).

He was set to continue his training in Japan after the SEA Games to prepare for the Tokyo Games.

DIDAL AND OTHERS
Apart from Messrs. Yulo and Obiena, who qualified for the Tokyo Games by clearing 5.81 meters in topping the Salto Con L’Asta competitions in Piazza, Italy, in September, and has been training at the special International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) training camp under the tutelage of Serbian coach Vitaly Petrov, Mr. Araneta said skateboarding, weightlifting, boxing, judo and golf are the potential sports that could send athletes to the 2020 Olympics.

In skateboarding, in the mix is 20-year-old Asian Games gold medalist Margielyn Didal, who has steadily been earning Olympic qualifying points in international competitions, the most recent of which was the OI STU Open Street/Park Skateboarding event in Brazil in November.

“I just came from Brazil for the STU qualifier for the Olympics. I did not enter the finals but I was in the top 10 which is a good number. Currently I’m in the top 14 in the world and we are on the right path, so there is a chance. If the Olympics started today we can qualify,” Ms. Didal said in an interview.

The Cebu City native said that she is confident of making it to the Summer Games this year but underscored the need for continued support in the push to achieve qualification.

“I’m confident of entering the Olympics. But there are a lot of competitions that I have to compete in starting January. We need all the support that we can get for these events to sustain the momentum we have built and get the points needed to stay in contention for a spot in the Olympics,” said Ms. Didal, who was recently added to the roster of athletes supported by energy drink Red Bull worldwide.

“If fortunate enough to qualify for the Olympics, we’ll try our best. I’ll give everything I have in training and in the competition.”

Ms. Didal was a two-time gold medallist in the SEA Games debut of skateboarding recently, winning in street skateboarding and Game of S.KA.T.E.

Following a silver-winning performance in the 2016 edition of the Games in Brazil, Hidilyn Diaz, 28, for her part, has become all the more determined to win the top hardware in the Olympics.

Four years ago in Rio, Ms. Diaz finished second to Chinese Taipei’s Hsu Shu-Ching. The former lifted 200 kilograms to the Taiwanese’s 212, settling for the silver medal in the women’s 53-kg division.

In vying for a spot for this year’s Games, the Zamboanga City weightlifter has been leaving no stone unturned, even soliciting more support for what she is trying to accomplish, including over social media.

She has vowed to do everything she can to appear in the Olympics for a fourth straight time.

“Training continues for me in my bid for the Olympics. I won’t take a break over Christmas and New Year. I will make that sacrifice to reach our goal and bring honor to the country,” Ms. Diaz said after winning her first SEA Games gold medal last month.

Ms. Diaz is coming off a “fruitful” 2019 where she also won two bronze medals at the Weightlifting World Championships in September.

She is set to compete in the 2020 Roma World Cup in January as part of her bid to make it to the Olympics.

Boxing, traditionally a steady source of Olympic athletes for the Philippines, has also made noise with the recent success of Nesthy Petecio, who won a gold medal in the 2019 AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships in October in Russia, and Eumir Marcial, silver medallist at the 2019 World Boxing Championships in September.

In 2016 in Rio, two boxers competed for the country — light flyweight Rogen Ladon and lightweight Charly Suarez.

In judo, Filipino-Japanese judoka Kiyomi Watanabe has an inside track for the Olympics while golfer Yuka Saso is targeting to make it as well.

The Philippine 3×3 basketball team also earned a berth in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in India in March.

COULD 2020 BE THE YEAR?
Given the kind of momentum Philippine athletes have been building, and the circumstances they are in, heading into the Tokyo Games, could 2020 be the year the country wins that elusive gold?

GAP’s Ms. Pou said the organization firmly believes that Mr. Yulo has what it takes to bring home the gold but admits it would be anything but easy.

“We are confident of his chances and we hope he stays healthy all the way to the Olympics. Given his preparations and the mindset he has now as well as the support of the government, the federation, his family and others, he has all the ‘tools’ going in and just needs to go for it and give his best shot,” said Ms. Pou, adding that floor exercise, parallel bars and vault are the gymnast’s strong suits.

“In winning gold in the world championships he showed what he is capable of and the Olympics could be the next thing,” she added.

“For the 2020 Olympics we have athletes who are capable of winning. They are up there in the rankings in their respective fields. And when you’re at that level anything can happen,” Mr. Araneta said.

“We are not going to the Olympics just to show up but more to compete and win. Nor are we going there clueless. We will prepare as best as we can. Of course, luck and prayers, too, would help,” he added.

And what if we fall short anew?

“I don’t think it would be a huge disappointment if we do not win gold. As long as we do our best and compete and prove we belong there at that level it is still a success,” according to the Philippine chef de mission.

“A gold definitely would be a huge bonus. But if we don’t win we’ll go back to the drawing board, look at what we did right and what we did wrong, and take another shot at it next time,” Mr. Araneta added.