Since its admission into the Southeast Asian Games Federation fold in 1977, the Philippines has so far been chosen as venue of the biennial meet among the region’s best and brightest athletes thrice.
Uncertainty as to whether to push through with the event marked the preparations in the three times the Games were held here. The first time the country was to play host of the Games’ 11th edition in 1981, for instance, proved to be trying a task for he hosts in Manila, which was to experience staging a multi-event competitions of that magnitude for the first time since the bigger Second Asian Games in 1954.
There were serious delays in the infrastructure requirements. Questions on the quality of the playing venues were forwarded. Last minute changes and other related problems cropped up.
Two weeks before the opening ceremony, the Games looked doomed. The 11th SEA Games Organizing Committee, led by its President, the late Col. Nereo Andolomg (retired), looked like headless chickens trying to piece together parts of the missing puzzle.
So alarmed were the hosts that a high-ranking government official even suggested moving the Games opening to a later date. Some even proposed to cancel the Games all together and surrender the right to other country more capable and ready to host them.
But no. Constructions were completed on time for the colorful opening rites on December 6 with no less than President Marcos standing erect on a special poxium at the historic Rizal Memorial Track-Football Stadium and declaring to “Let The Games Of The 11th Southeast Asia Begin.”
And the Filipinos started to mill around the refurbished main hub that was built to house the 10th and final edition of the defunct Far Eastern Games, forerunner of the now Asian Games, in cheering and rooting for their compatriots, who ran, jumped, swam and boxed their ways way to victories after victories en route to a decent third place overall finish, the country’s highest since 1977, behind eventual champion Indonesia and runner up Thailand.
President Marcos, defending his decision to push through with the hosting, declared: “The hosting is a matter that cannot be quantified in terms of financial expense, although there are always those, who, in their limited vision of life, say that the cost of preparing the various venues of the games are a waste of money.”
“But there is this universal experience of mankind. Since time immemorial, when the First Olympic Games were played in Athens in ancient Greece, sports have evolved in amazing way of bringing the nations of the world closer together,” he stressed.
Marcos, who honored the Games with his fourth straight appearance during the closing ceremonies, exhorted the athletes to go back to their home countries and tell their people of the splendid spirit of solidarity they had shown in Manila.
“Speak of the friendship that, I am sure, all of you have made here. Tell your people, above all, of the common hope which that burning flame stands for,” he said, pointing to the Games Flame he himself lit during the opening ceremonies which was slowly extinguishing.
Five days after the inaugural rites on December 11, a young, long-limbed Mecauayan, Bulacan beauty, Lydia de Vega, showed up at the oval and ran the 200 meters race way ahead of her closest pursuers in a new meet record that also surpassed the 11-year Asian Games mark the famous Taiwanese Chi Cheng.
The then 16-year-old De Vega, returned to the track two days later and claimed too, the 400-meter crown in another record-breaking feat before one of the biggest crowd that filled Asia’s first sports complex crowning herself as the SEA Games “Fastest Woman.”
De Vega’s heroics, that also made her the rallying point of the Philippines’ modest 55-gold medal harvest, third only to Indonesia’s 85 and Thailand’s 62, rewarded her with a congratulatory hug from no less than her President, who made it a point to watch every Games’ proceeding, time-permitting.
Besides De Vega, those who emerged heroes in the hosts’ campaign were, among others, Isidro del Prado, David Carmelo, Jaime Grafilo and Erlinda Lavandia in athletics; World Cuppers Paeng Nepomuceno, Rene Reyes, Bong Coo and Lita dela Rosa in bowling; Nelson Jamili, Efren Tabanas, Rento Togonon, Ruben Mares, Alexander Arroyo and Alberto Tejada in boxing;
Rodolfo Guaves, Diomedes Panton, Rufo Dacumos, Jommel Lorenzo, Jessie Abaquita and Edgardo Pagarigan in cycling; Rolando Albuera in gymnastics; Andres Macion in judo; Arlene Rodillado and ChonaGana in shooting; William Wilson and Jairulla Jaitulla in swimming; Alex Marcial and Pia Tamayo in lawn tennis; Jaime Sebastian and Ramon Solis in weightlifting, the men’s and women’s softball teams, men’s basketball team and women’s volleyball team.
When the smoke of battle was extinguished and the medals were won, it was the host country – the Philippines – who came out the real winner for successfully hurdling all the obstacles, natural and man-made, in making the 11thSoutheast Asian Games a reality.
That milestone in the world-renowned capability of the Philippines to host a sporting event of that magnitude showcasing, too, the Filipinos’ character as the most cordial and hospitable people this part of he world, was to be repeated twice more in 1991 and 2005. But those were other stories.