THE Philippines winning its first Olympic gold medal in Tokyo 2020 in 2021 and the men’s basketball team bringing back home the Asian Games crown after 61 long years.
Before that, the overall championship in the 30th Southeast Asian Games played on home soil in 2019 and a year before that, four gold medals at the Asian Games in Jakarta—worthy to take notice of as the haul was matched in the penultimate day in Hangzhou.
Going further back, cycling prevented a gold medal shutout for the Philippines at the Incheon Asian Games in 2014.
All under the watch of Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino at the Philippine Olympic Committee (PO).
Destiny? Pure luck? Or were goals set and accomplished?
“Are we lucky? You can call it luck, I call it blessings of prosperity coupled with fervent prayers,” said Tolentino, originally a chess enthusiast now a lover of all sports. “Prosperity is about giving. The more is given, the more we reap.”
“And let’s not forget…God,” said Tolentino, who before becoming a full-pledged POC president in 2020 was secretary general of chess and shooting, founded the kickboxing federation and president of the cycling association known by its alias as PhilCycling.
He even held a sensitive post as secretary general of the FIDE, the world-governing body for chess, while he was Tagaytay City mayor and congressman for Cavite’s Eight District.
Tolentino’s a religious man, a trait that nurtured him to becoming Grandmaster in 2017 of the Free and Accepted Masons of the Philippines.
That faith in God—and add some superstition to his Cavetino, Batangueno and Bicolano blood—was very evident during Tokyo 2020 that were postponed a year because of the pandemic.
HISTORY UNFOLDS IN TOKYO
MARIANO “NONONG” ARANETA was the Philippines’ chef de mission (DdM) to the Tokyo Olympics. But Tolentino didn’t allow the football association head to watch a single match of any of the 19 Filipino Olympians.
Two lawyers—POC chief legal Wharton Chan and deputy Billy Sumagui—and others on the CdM team were strictly told to hear Mass first before going to the venues.
“Yes,” was Chan and Sumagui’s common reply, adding they had to hear Mass almost everyday or kneel in prayers before watching the athletes compete.
Superstition, or not, and faith rolled all the way to the country’s first Olympic gold medal when Hidilyn Diaz (now Naranjo) won on July 26, 2021, a mental-over-physical duel with a favored and jeweled veteran from China in the women’s -55 kgs category of weightlifting.
“Philippines! Philippines! Philippines!” Tolentino kept shouting at the top of his voice, shedding tears of joy for Diaz’s success that was for the entire country to celebrate.
Tolentino lost his voice but he needed some more after that as the boxers followed suit in making Tokyo 2020 the most successful campaign ever by the Philippines since it participated in the quadrennial “Greatest Show on Earth” in 1924 in Paris.
Nesthy Petecio got silver in women’s featherweight on August 3, Eumir Felix Marcial bagged bronze two days later in men’s middleweight and Carlo Paalam clinched also silver in men’s flyweight on August 7.
The most productive ever in Olympic history for the Philippines under Tolentino’s first two years as POC president that was stunted by 12 months of almost non-activity, no thanks to Covid.
“I prayed everyday, thanked the Lord for the gifts and opportunities during those exciting but tenseful days, but by day’s end, these athletes—Hidilyn, Carlo, Nesthy and Eumir—got what it took to make them Olympic winners,” Tolentino said.
“Hidilyn for one persevered for three Olympics, for 12 years, before hitting the big one…how do you call that?” he said. “The boxers? They’re all veterans and as veterans, you risk your face and body everyday getting hit by punches here and there.”
CYCLING IN INCHEON, GOLDS IN JAKARTA
ABRAHAM “BAMBOL” TOLENTINO knew where he’s coming from before Tokyo. He was PhilCycling chief and not yet with the POC when Daniel Caluag, two years off his Olympic stint in London, won the men’s BMX race for the country’s one-and-only gold medal at the Incheon Asian Games.
Slowly, Tolentino—who’s passion for chess couldn’t be doubted with his vast collection of chess boards and pieces of all shapes, sizes, colors and appearance inside the Tagaytay City Mayor’s Office—got his way to the top echelon of the POC.
With the turmoil at the POC still isn’t done-and-over-with, Tolentino was on then POC president Ricky Vargas’s side when the country notched its best finish in three editions of the also quadrennial Asian Games in Jakarta 2018.
Golf produced two champions—Yuka Saso in women’s individual and Saso, Bianca Pagdanganan and Lois Kaye Go in team, Margielyn Didal in skateboarding and Diaz, who only two years ago was silver medalist at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
The coming of age of Philippine sports starting to peep from the horizon one full Olympic cycle before Diaz and co.’s conquest in Tokyo?
30TH SEAG ON SCRATCH PAPERS
UPON returning from Jakarta, trouble marred the POC once more. The apolitical Ricky Vargas gave way to Tolentino in a court-ordered “snap elections,” a wise decision as he went on to win and complete the final two of one Olympic cycle.
“That’s water under the bridge,” Tolentino kept on saying after that. He knew he had to look forward because in a year, the SEA Games were coming back for the fourth time after 1981, 1991 and 2005.
A man who believes in completing a particular task in “isang upuan,” Tolentino got the 30th SEA Games all in his pocket, on scratch papers that he got hold of when stream of consciousness took over his mind.
“I had it all on scratch papers, scribbling ideas and plans the moment they struck my mind,” he said. “How many sports? How many events? How the match would go in terms of winning gold medals. Everything.”
The result was a country rejoicing with a haul of 149 gold, 117 silver and 121 bronze medals from a then games record 530 events in 56 sports.
It would be interesting if those magical scratch papers are encased in glass in his sports museum in Tagaytay City.
NI HAO HANGZHOU 19th ASIAN GAMES
HANGZHOU was no different from at least three previous editions of the Asian Games when suspense gripped the Philippine delegations.
Roberto Jalnaiz won the country’s only gold medal almost in the final day of competitions at the Beijing 1990 edition, as well as billiards players Gandy Valle and Romeo Villanueva in 1998 in Bangkok.
Hope looked lost in the afternoon ahead of the closing ceremony for the Busan Asiad in 2002 when Mikee Cojuangco captured gold in equestrian when the sun was about to set for the evening presentation by the hosts.
In Hangzhou, the scenario looked the same.
Ernest John “EJ” Obiena was a no-brainer soaring to the men’s pole vault gold medal in games-record fashion and Hidilyn Diaz-Naranjo making the podium in his new weight class of 59 kgs was to be counted as a bonus of sorts.
Margielyn Didal? She wasn’t 100 percent at all that her coach should be admonished for fielding the Cebuana pride injured.
On a fateful October 7 night, a Friday, at the HOC basketball gym packed by Chinese fans reeking of revenge, the men’s basketball team Gilas Pilipinas jolted Jordan, 70-60, and the Philippines are Asian Games kings once more.
Coach Tim Cone, team manager Alfrancis Chua and deputy Willie Marcial and their rag-tag Gilas crew toppled the odds to bring home the gold last won in 1962 in Jakarta.
But that was only the second gold for the Philippines. Two more were needed.
Suddenly, it’s that Tolentino lucky charm doing its thing all over again. From out of nowhere on the jiu-jitsu mat, Meggie Ochoa and Annie Ramirez triumphed one after another to complete the modest target of four gold medals.
Mission accomplished? Aye, aye sir!
PHL SPORTS’ SECOND COMING OF AGE
THE upward trend sourced from the recent successes overseas started to paint a renaissance in Philippine sports—a second coming of age.
“When the NSAs [national sports associations] entrusted me to lead POC, I told myself that it is about time to leave a milestone of accomplishment sfor all succeeding leaders that may follow after me,” Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino said.
“No more mediocre leadership, but a leadership that is purely geared towards athlete development,” he said.
Based on that premise, Tolentino said the overall champion in the 2019 SEA Games followed as a matter if course.
“Then I said, let us make milestone in the plural. The Tokyo Olympics followed with the first ever Olympic gold medal, two silvers and one bronze,” said the 59-year-old Tolentino. “Never has it happened for the Philippines.”
His hard work and diligent approach is complimented by his generosity as a sports leader—he gifted the Olympic medalist a house-and-lot each in Tagaytay City and has pioneered the POC Athletes’ Trust Fund that rewards medalists in major international competitions cash bonuses outside of the law-mandated financial incentives.
“Our athletes are performing even beyond their capabilities and the idea of having financial returns on their hard trainings is a new motivation for everyone,” he said.
Tolentino deflected most of the attribution to his fellow sports leaders in the NSAs.
“The NSA’s leadership has also contributed a lot,” he said. “These leaders get nothing in return, they are sharing their time and resources for our athletes.”
Volunteerism from these leaders, Tolentino said, supplements the truth of prosperity.