MANILA, September 20, 2003 (STAR) By Abac Cordero  - With or without President Arroyo, the 15th Asian Athletics Association Championships fires off today with close to a thousand athletes from 41 countries seeing action at the Rizal Memorial Stadium over the next four days.

It will only be the third time that the Philippines will host the prestigious event considered as the Olympics of Asian track and field. It will also be the biggest international sports gathering in the country in recent years.

The event offering a total of 43 gold medals was first held in the country in 1973. It took 20 long years before it returned to Philippine soil in 1993 and then another 10 years before now.

Former Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Fidel Ramos, true lovers of sports, then graced the opening ceremonies. President Arroyo, however, has reportedly turned down an invitation for her to be guest of honor.

Like the President, Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon also sent word that he wonít grace the opening set at 2 p.m. and will instead be represented by Cynthia Carrion, the former PSC commissioner and now a tourism official.

The list of would-be no-shows does not end there.

Lamine Diack of Senegal, president of the IAAF (the world-governing body in track and field), will also miss the event. He was scheduled to arrive yesterday but, because of a more important commitment, skipped his flight to Manila.

Turkmenistan backed out at the last minute after its athletes suffered from food poisoning before their scheduled departure. Teams from Afghanistan and Bhutan also begged off at the last minute while North Korea was first to confirm its non-attendance.

"Iím still not giving up until the last minute. So many dignitaries, members of the diplomatic corps and a thousand athletes and officials here are expecting the President to come," said RP athletics president Go Teng Kok yesterday.

Go is still keeping his fingers crossed that the President, despite her busy schedule, might just drop by for the opening. She is scheduled to leave for Zamboanga any minute to check on the progress of the hunt for terrorist Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi.

"Iíll be disappointed if the President does not come," added Go.

Fifty-one Filipino athletes will compete against the best of Asia with Kuala Lumpur SEA Games double-gold medalist Eduardo Buenavista, long jumpers Lerma Bulauitan and Maristela Torres, long-distance runner Cristabel Martes and 400-m specialist Ernie Candelario at the helm.

Only four gold medals will be disputed today ó in womenís triple jump, womenís shot put, menís discus throw and womenís 10,000 meters.

Martes will see action in the 10,000-m run along with UAAP standout Mercedita Manipol and reigning National Open champion Flordeliza Cachero. Also seeing action for the locals are Ralph Saguilon and Chantal Balani in the 100-m heats and Rene Herrera in the 1,500-m run. Bulauitan and Torres will do the long jump on Sunday

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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