HANOI, December 12, 2003  (STAR) By Gerry Carpio (Via Globe Telecom)–The Philippines has breached the 40-gold medal barrier. Now it’s aiming for the No. 4 position.

Victories in the marathon, cross-country mountain bike, wrestling, taekwondo and fencing gave the Philippines six gold medals for a total gold medal count of 41, as it closed in on Malaysia in the final hours of the 22nd Southeast Asian Games yesterday. Malaysia was still two up at fourth with 43 golds.

"I told you six months ago that we will win at least 40 gold medals," said PSC chair Eric Buhain. "I said I believed in the athletes, my faith in them never wavered."

Prospects for a last-day reversal for the Philippines, which has been at fifth place since the second day, remained bright as Filipinos were in the thick of the fight for the last golds in taekwondo, fencing, wrestling and wushu in the night competitions here and far away Ho Chi Minh City.

The Philippines could have narrowed the gap further but the SEA Games Federation Council has yet to act on the protest of the swimming team, which appealed the disqualification of its 4x200 freestyle relay team early this week.

With the disqualification, the Philippine relay team lost the gold, which eventually went to Malaysia. The RP secretariat said the federation had not acted on the appeal since a ruling was already made by FINA, the world governing body for swimming.

Vietnam, as host, also zoomed beyond its projected 90-110 gold medal output, garnering 136 to virtually claim its first overall title since joining the SEA Games in 1989. Thailand, also second in 2001 to host Malaysia, had 84, while Indonesia had 51.

While the top three countries all but secured their positions, the Philippines and Malaysia found themselves locked in a sudden death duel for fourth place, with Malaysia expecting more golds in badminton through its world class shuttlers, and in gymnastics and wushu.

The Philippines is banking on the men’s basketball team, which is favored to clinch the crown after today’s final game at Ho Chi Minh City, and one or two in the long game of chess also in Ho Chi Minh.

It took the gutsy performance of Filipino campaigners who achieved the unexpected as they poured it all in the country’s quest for the precioius gold.

Allan Ballester won the marathon in a duel with a Vietnamese aided by a motorcycle-riding coach and gave athletics its eighth gold at the close of competitions at the National Sports Complex.

At the epee fencing competition in the Gao Cay gym in Downtown Hanoi, the team of actor Richard Gomez, Avelino Victorino and Almario Vizcayno won the epee team gold for the first time in 10 years and shed tears of joy in a celebration on the podium as the national anthem was played.

On an offroad outside Hanoi, Eusebio Quinones rode amidst a swirl of dust and sharp rocks to win the 35k cross-country event in mountain bike, the first won by the Philippines in the SEA Games and the first in cycling since Joselito Santos won the 1000m individual time trial in Chiang Mai in 1997. Victor Espiritu was awarded the gold medal months after the 2001 SEA Games after the winner, Tonton Susanto of Indonesia, tested positive for a banned substance.

"What a way to end a campaign, "said Mar Mendoza, Philippine cycling federation secretary-general and team manager. "The sacrifices of the boys have reaped dividends and we are sure to make this performance as a springboard to improve further."

Two wrestlers trained in Mongolia for 40 days grappled for the gold–Cris Villanueva in the 51kg freestyle and Marcus Valda in the 96 kg freestyle, giving wrestling its fourth gold in all. Valda emerged lone Filipino individual gold medallist.

Mary Antoinette Rivero outfought Singaporean Chen Peiqui to win the gold in featherweight class of taekwondo. It was the fifth for the team.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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