MANILA, November 30, 2005 
(STAR) SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin M. Henson - The pessimists said it couldn’t be done. No way the Philippines could stage the opening ceremonies of the 23rd Southeast Asian (SEA) Games without falling flat on its face. There was too little time, they said. Too little money, they lamented. And too much politics that got in the way of a smooth show.

A rumor even spread that TV producer Maria Montelibano had backed out of taking charge of the inaugural rites.

Self-styled critics castigated the organizers for failing to generate public interest in the Games. Where were the billboards? Where were the TV plugs? Where was the air of excitement? The prophets of doom predicted a national disaster in the offing.

But through it all, Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) president Jose Cojuangco Jr. believed that what detractors said couldn’t be done, would be done. He never lost faith. Sure, the odds were daunting. So what? A job had to be done and it wasn’t for Cojuangco or for anybody else. It was a job that had to be done for the country.

Last Sunday, Cojuangco put the Philippines’ best foot forward in a brilliant opening program produced by Montelibano at the Luneta. The show was proof that the Filipino can do and will do under the most trying circumstances.

Some described the show as austere. Others said it was festive. But the general consensus was it was a class act.

From Toni Leviste’s appearance on a horse to pass the torch to taekwondo jin Maria Antoinette Rivero who sparked the lighting of the flame on a giant cauldron to equestrienne Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski leading the oath of sportsmanship to President Arroyo declaring the games open to the colorful fireworks to the wondrous performance of the San Miguel Philharmonic Orchestra and the San Miguel Chorale under Ryan Cayabyab’s baton to nine-year-old soprano Julia Abueva’s rendition of the SEA Games theme song to the parade of athletes to the incredible performance of "One Heritage, One Southeast Asia" by several acclaimed dance troupes to the rocking music of Rivermaya, the show was remarkable.

Those who doubted that the Philippines could stage an impressive opening rites were finally convinced. Cojuangco made believers out of them.

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Twice before, the Philippines hosted the SEA Games. The first was in 1981 when the host nation finished third in the medal standings. Indonesia took overall honors with 85 gold medals. Thailand was second with 62 and the Philippines came next with 55.

President Marcos opened the Games in the opening ceremonies at the Rizal Memorial Track and Field Stadium. Joe Cantada was the master of ceremonies. Marcos came with Prime Minister Cesar Virata, Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Fabian Ver and chairman of the organizing committee Col. Nereo Andolong.

Long distance runner Benjamin Silva-Netto, who competed for the Philippines when Manila hosted the Asian Games in 1954, ran around the oval with the symbolic torch and climbed 41 steps up a platform to light the urn, signaling the start of hostilities.

On the first day of competition, Indonesia grabbed 11 of 15 gold medals at stake. The Philippines bagged a single gold, courtesy of Iloilo teener Arlene Rodillado who topped the women’s air rifle event.

Track queen Lydia de Vega was the 1981 darling, hitting paydirt in the 200-meter and 400-meter events. Ollie Ongtawco won the men’s singles crown in bowling to join her among the Games brightest stars. The Philippine basketball team also struck gold. Coach Pilo Pumaren’s cagers were skipper Frankie Lim, Itoy Esguerra, Bokio Lauchengco, Ricky Relosa, Ed Cordero, J. B. Yango, Elmer Reyes, Teddy Alfarero, Franz Pumaren, Wilton Roxas, Toya Rojales and John Copada. The hoopsters beat Malaysia, 91-74, in the title playoff that was marred by fisticuffs. Malaysia had upset the Philippines, 77-76, in the elimination round.

Cycling, athletics and bowling delivered eight golds each for the Philippines. Boxing and weightlifting produced six apiece. Swimming had four with Billy Wilson claiming three and Jairulla Jaitulla the other. Gymnastics, tennis and shooting brought in three each. Bowler Bong Coo took four gold medals to emerge the most bemedalled campaigner. The only sports (of 18 in the calendar) where the Philippines failed to win a gold were sepak takraw, archery, table tennis, football and badminton.

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The next hosting came in the 1991 Games. This time, the Philippines came close to clinching overall honors, finishing a gold medal shy of equaling Indonesia’s haul of 92.

President Aquino opened the Games during the inaugural rites at the Rizal Memorial Track and Field Stadium. De Vega, accompanied by Carlos Loyzaga, lit the SEA Games flame.

On the first day, the Philippines claimed nine of 20 golds in a stirring start. Swimmers Akiko Thomson, Eric Buhain and Leo Najera led the charge. Shooter Emerito Concepcion, the cycling road race team, gymnast Cathy Ocampo, fencer Walter Torres and snooker’s Leonardo Andam were others who struck gold.

Shooting, swimming and wushu accounted for 10 golds apiece. Athletics, boxing and taekwondo contributed eight each.

The national basketball team breezed to gold with Francis Rodriguez coaching stars like Victor Pablo, Johnny Abarrientos, Jun Limpot, Marlou Aquino, Vergel Meneses, Bong Ravena and Boyet Fernandez.

The country’s multiple medalists were bowlers Paeng Nepomuceno (one gold, three silvers), Norman Gonzales (one gold, two silvers) and Paolo Valdez (two golds, three silvers, one bronze), athletics’ de Vega (one gold, two silvers, one bronze), Elma Muros (two golds, one silver, one bronze) and Nene Pellosis (one gold, two bronzes), swimming’s Buhain (five golds) and Thomson (two golds, two silvers), tennis’ Felix Barrientos (three golds) and Roland So (two golds, one bronze) and wushu’s Lester Pimentel (three bronzes) and Bobby Hongliangyi (one gold, two silvers).

Sports where the Philippines failed to win a single gold medal were badminton, football, sepak takraw, squash, table tennis, traditional boat race and volleyball.

This year, the Philippines took five of the 14 golds up for grabs on the first day of competitions–clearly, a positive sign. The host nation took the early lead in total medals with 14 followed by Malaysia’s 10. Defending overall champion Vietnam was fourth with a single gold and eight total medals.

From third place when the Philippines made its debut as SEA Games host in 1981 to second on its second hosting in 1991. If the trend holds, it will be No. 1 for the Philippines on its third hosting this year.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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