Thirteen Filipino athletes will launch the Philippines’ quest for its very first Olympic gold medal in the 2016 Summer Games that will kick off on August 5 at the 78,000-seater Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Table tennis player Ian Lariba will carry the Philippine flag for the contingent that includes boxers Charly Suarez and Rogen Ladon; tracksters Eric Shawun Cray, Marestella Torres-Sunang and Mary Joy Tabal; golfer Miguel Tabuena; weightlifters Nestor Colonia and Hidilyn Diaz; swimmers Jasmine Alkhaldi and Jessie Khing Lacuna; and taekwondo jin Kirstie Elaine Alora.
A last minute addition to the Philippine delegation is Filipino-Japanese judoka Kodo Nakano.
Nakano is expected to arrive just in time for the judo competitions that will begin on August 9. He will compete in the 81 kg class.
Accompanying the athletes are Filipino chef-de-mission Jose Romasanta as well as Philippine Olympic Committee Second Vice President Jeff Tamayo, and Treasurer Julian Camacho.
Coaching the Filipino bets in Rio are Southeast Asian Games finweight champion Roberto Cruz (taekwondo), Joebert Delicano (athletics), Boy Velasco (boxing), Archie Lim and American Jennifer Buffin (swimming), South Korean Mi Sook Kwon (table tennis), and Alfonsito Aldanete (weightlifting).
Over 10,000 athletes and 6,000 officials from 206 countries will participate in the quadrennial meet.
Seeing action the day after the opening ceremony are Lariba, Ladon, Suarez and Lacuna.
Lariba will face a Puerto Rican who’s younger and higher in rankings in her opening match at the Riocentro Convention Center.
Lariba, a soft-spoken 21-year-old student of De La Salle University, will be pitted against Puerto Rico’s Adriana Diaz in the opening day of the table tennis competition that features 86 athletes each in the men and women’s divisions.
The Puerto Rican, who’s only 15, is ranked No. 80 in the world while Lariba is No. 297.
Their match in the preliminary round is set as 12 noon.
“I’ve seen her play although I haven’t played against her yet. She’s younger and has more experience in international tournaments. She joins the World Tour. She is right-handed. She’s more active than me when it comes to international tournaments,” said Lariba.
The Philippines is seeking to end a 20-year medal drought in the Olympics. The last time a Filipino athlete came home with a medal was in 1996 when light-flyweight boxer Onyok Velasco won the silver medal in the Atlanta Games.
Ladon will fight in the light-flyweight 949 kg) while Suarez will compete in the lightweight (60 kg) divisions.
“If we get the breaks in the draw, then we get better chances of winning medals here. But our boxers are ready for whoever is in front of them,” said Velasco adding the boxers are well-rested and ready to go.
Philippine Sports Commission Chairman William “Butch” Ramirez is optimistic that the Filipino athletes will win medals in Rio.
“I’m positive they will bring home a medal. It’s not impossible because they are all capable,” said Ramirez.
Ramirez added that the Olympiad remains as the greatest competition in the world today.
“I would like to say that the government looks at the Olympics as a great competition and being there is still the best. All our athletes, who are there to compete, deserve to be honored. We will pray that they will bring home medals for the country,” Ramirez added.
Dealing with threats
“It’s always a threat. Security is always a concern during events of this magnitude. There is the threat of terrorism and it’s around us here,” Romasanta said on the threats of Zika virus and terrorism in Rio.
“Presence of mind is always most important. Security will always be a problem when over 200 countries congregate. So, be aware and be prepared for anything that might happen,” he added.
Tamayo, a security expert and consultant back home, also issued some advice in case something goes wrong.
“Never keep your guard down. As we gather at the stadium, we need to identify a safe haven for us, a place where we will meet in case something happens,” Tamayo said.
EMIL C. NOGUERA AND FRANK CALAPRE