Michael Martinez made history by merely setting foot in Sochi, Russia and representing the Philippines in figure skating in the Winter Olympics, but the young man wanted to do more than just cast his shadow on the rink. He wanted to show that he can compete against the best in the world despite coming from a tropical country that is as familiar to snow as a caveman is to a computer tablet.
Flawlessly perform Martinez did, and while his efforts did not merit an Olympic medal, he easily won the hearts of figure skating fans with his grit and determination. Martinez came to compete, not just represent, and opened a whole new door worth looking at for Philippine sports officials.
Since the 1924 Olympics, when sprinter David Nepomuceno became the first Filipino to take part in the prestigious quadrennial meet, local sports officials and athletes have been zeroing in on the elusive gold in the Summer Games. The Winter Olympics, as evidenced by the anemic government support Martinez received heading to Sochi, have never been taken seriously.
The lack of interest is understandable when one takes into account the tropical landscape of the country. Even the history books show that winter sports were not included in the agenda of the organizers when the first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens in 1896. Winter sports presented a problem because the Games were held in summer, a time when winter facilities were scarce. However, in the 1908 London Olympic Games, figure skating was tried on an artificial rink. The event did not create a stir and drifted into oblivion. There was a brief comeback in the 1920 Belgium Games, when figure skating returned and ice hockey debuted, but it was not until 1924 when organizers were finally convinced that winter sports had amassed a following big enough to support a separate set of Games. The first Winter Olympic Games was held from January 25 to February 4, 1924 in Chamonix, France and was attended by representatives of 16 countries comprising of 294 competitors, of which 13 were women. The first ever official Winter Olympic gold medallist was Charles Jewtraw of the United States, who won the 500-meter speed skating on January 26, 1924.
Since then, the Winter Olympics have produced its share of heart-warming stories, the latest being the Cinderella-like journey of Martinez.
Easily the most memorable underdog story in the Winter Games was the performance of Jamaica’s bobsleigh team in the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Canada. Jamaica, known for its tropical weather, had never been to the Winter Olympics but it all changed when two American businessmen sponsored a team made up of Army officer Devon Harris, Dudley Stokes, Michael White and last-minute replacement Nelson Stokes. “We couldn’t even walk on ice—we spent more time on our butts than we did actually running,” Harris was quoted as saying when asked to recall the team’s first training session. Despite very little practice, the Jamaican team became the crowd favorite because of their ultimate underdog tag. The team did not officially finish after losing control of the sled and crashing badly during one of their four runs. While the crowd repeatedly cheered: “We love you, we love you,” Harris claimed that the team was scared stiff to return to Jamaica and felt that they would be chased out of town. As it turned out, Harris and his team returned to a rousing welcome. The faces of the team appeared on stamps in Jamaica and their experience inspired the 1993 Hollywood movie “Cool Runnings.”
Ten years after the Jamaican bobsleigh team’s heart-warming story in Canada, it was the turn of cross-country skier Philip Boit to author a poignant story in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. Boit came from Kenya and was actually into long-distance running when he developed an interest in cross-country skiing. How unfamiliar was Boit about the competition? He had never seen snow until he started training in Finland two years before the Games. Boit finished at the tail-end in the 10-kilometer classic style event, but in a dramatic finale, gold medal winner Bjorn Daehlie of Norway delayed the awarding ceremony to wait for Boit. Heavy rain made the course unbelievably tough on the day of the event, and Daehlie was impressed that Boit was able to finish the race. “I wanted to wait for him at the finish line—this African, brave skier,” said Daehlie.
Boit reached the finish line some 20 minutes later, and Daehlie gave him a brotherly hug. “They were shouting ‘Kenya Go! Philip Go!’ It was like I was winning a medal even though I was last,” recalled Boit. So touched was Boit by Daehlie’s gesture that he later named his son Daehlie Boit.
The story of Martinez, whose mother mortgaged the family home just to send him to Sochi, now joins the fairy-tale stories of Boit and the Jamaican bobsleigh team. Then again, the story of Martinez, who is only 17 years old, may just be starting to unfold. With the right amount of support the next time around, it will be interesting how Martinez will perform if he succeeds in returning to the 2018 Winter Games.
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