HAD Fortunato Catalon not persevered and allowed school officials at the Leyte High School had their way, the Philippines would not have earned the honor of having the winningest athlete that emerged in the Far Eastern Games (FEG), forerunner of the now Asian Games, the second oldest multi-nation regional sports competitions, next only to the Olympics Games.
Knowing his quickness can get him achieve great heights in his athletic dream, the still young and raw son of a field worker in the farming town of Tolosa tried becoming a member of his school’s track and field team but was rejected due to his small built.
He landed baseball where he showed his extraordinary speed in reaching the bases and led the school’s track and field coaches to reconsider their decisions and finally accepted him into the team.
The rest, as they say, was history.
At only 19, he was born October 14, 1887, Catalon saw himself wearing the country’s red, white and blue colors to the third edition of the triangular conclave among the best athletes from Japan, China and the Philippines.
He did not disappoint. Right in the trials of his first event, Catalon immediately felt his presence served notice of what he can do, winning his heat with the second best 10.2 seconds clocking behind compatriot and 1915 winner Genaro Saavedra’s 10 flat, a new Games record but faster than another Filipino Nicolas Llaneta’s 10.4.
The new Sprint King-to-be Filipino then went on to win the opening half of his bid of bid, tying the new mark set by Saavedra in the qualifying run. Llaneta took the silver edging out Japanese Sakano Madano. Saavedra ended fourth.
Catalon merely exerted enough efforts in completing a sweep the dashes coming out on top, too, of the 220-yard easily showing the way to Medano and another Japanese Joji Hattori on the way to the medal podium.
As if a double whammy wasn’t enough, the Filipino track sensation ended his year’s campaign by anchoring the 4 x 220-relay quartet composed of Pedro Ablan, Saavedra and Llaneta to another gold tinted software.
Catalon, thus, became the second man to win that sprint double after Pio Robillos who did the trick in the Games’ inaugural edition in 1913 besides succeeding Saavedra and Llaneta of the 1915 fame. His winning time of 10.0 seconds in the 100 yards was a new games record while his time of 23.8 seconds in the 220 yards was two-tenths off Robillos’ Games’ best.
He returned to defend his three titles at the 1919 Manila Games, 1921 in Shanghai and 1923 in Osaka. He only managed through a gold medal, in his favorite 100-meter in his last Games in 1925, also in Manila where he, was able to salvage a silver each in the 200 meters and 4 x 200 relay.
The Filipino track superstar once ran a fast 9.8 seconds 00 meters in March 1923 enabling him to rank sixth in the world that year. World record holder Charley Paddock of the United States, who met Catalon in is visit to the country dubbed him “champion of champions”.
News of his near-world record runs spread to Western media through Fred England and Elwood Brown – two American officials of then sports ruling body Philippine Amateur Athletic Federation.
His feats encouraged interest in the country to sending a tiny ten-man Philippine contingent for the first time to the 1924 Games of the in Paris. It wasn’t Catalon though but his heir apparent David Nepomuceno who earned the ticket to Paris and became the first Filipino to compete in the quadrennial aggrupation..
Nepomuceno, who succeeded him as King of Philippine and Asian sprints, beat Caalon in the Olympic trials held before the Paris sojourn where he was accompanied by Regino Ylanan, the 1913 FEG “Man of Steel” who acted as his coach. Catalon was supposed to meet and race against Paddock in Paris, but it did not materialize.
Upon his retirement Catalon worked as a race starter and was, in fact, played that role in the 10thand final staging of the Games in 1934 where his compatriot Rafael de Leon became the last to ever rule the 100 meters in he FEG.
Catalon resumed his studies and earned a college diploma from the University of Santo Tomas in Manila.
Despite his outstanding performance in the Asian level competitions, he and his fellow FEG heroes are yet to be considered to be inducted to the Philippine Sports Hall of Fame.