MANILA, December 16, 2003  (BULLETIN) By Ding Marcelo - EFREN “BATA” REYES was grinning from ear-to-ear. His demeanor spoke of confidence, his words carried the weight of certainty. “Mahina ang five gold medals na ipapanalo namin,” he said after surveying the billiards landscape and dismissing the aspirants as something of a low life worthy of disdain.

At the end of the tournament, Bata was as meek as a lamb, the confidence gone, the swagger, too.

He had become the biggest casualty of the Southeast Asian Games. Add the name of Francisco “Django” Bustamante on that list.

Bata and Django. The names alone evoked fear and awe. The question was who between them would win the gold in the 9-ball competition. The answer was none. It went to a nondescript Indonesian wannabe named Muhamad Junarto who humbled the great Bata, 11-9, in the semifinals. That’s right, the semifinals. Bata did not even reach the finals.

And Django? He got clobbered by a Vietnamese upstart in the quarterfinals.

The setbacks were the lowest points for the Philippine Team which had hoped to ride on the duo’s billiards mastery to meet its gold medal target.

But if there were low points, there, too,were high points.

Who would forget a bloodied Gretchen Malalad winning karate’s only gold, putting her Bb. Pilipinas face and her model’s figure on the line?

Wasn’t she afraid she might get disfigured?

No, sanay na akong makibagbasakan ng mukha, she told Tempo’s Rey Bancod. Indeed, after she won the gold, she said a phrase that may belong to the ages: “This is better than winning a beauty title.”

How about Mark Paragua? The youngest player on the chess squad whose streak of generosity shamed his older and supposedly more mature teammates who quarelled over the spoils that were yet to become reality.

Paragua who jetted from Europe to find his teammates divided on who would get the bigger slice of the pie in the event of victory, showed a sage’s wisdom by saying “let’s all split it evenly.” And then proceeded to win three gold medals, the most by any Filipino athlete.

And there was Richard Gomez who cried unashamedly – unscripted — after winning his first and only gold in six international fencing competitions. And it came after he announced this would be his last tournament.

He wanted to finish with a bang, and he did.

Swimming, which came to the Games under attack from athletes and parents, managed to put all the problems behind to bring home two gold medals, a breakthrough when one considers that in two previous SEA Games, in an event where more than 80 gold medals were up grabs, the team brought home none.

And thanks too to Ryan Rexel Fabriga for two diving golds, one shared with Jaime Asok.

And after Eduardo Buenavista bombed out in the 3,000 steeplechase following a stratetgic error,who would save the day but an uknown Rene Herrera to make up for the mistake.

And Harry Tañamor without whom boxing would have had no face to meet their generous sponsors.

But even Harry’s gold was not enough to make boxing feel that it delivered. Indeed, boxing was a big failure, losing five finals bout and blaming the loss on partisan officiating.

Whether this accusation is a figment of the imagination or an accurate reading of the circumstance, it remains to be further analyzed. What is fact is that boxing could not hit straight despite the millions sunk into its training and exposure over the years.

Add the disappointment of Roberto Cruz to this list. The multi-awarded taekwondo star could not come up with the goods at the crucial time and absorbed a rare loss in this competition where he had reigned six times previously. —With report from Noli Cruz

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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