[PHOTO AT LEFT - Ernie Candelario tries to recover his breath after anchoring the Philippine team to a gold medal finish in the menís 4 x 400-meter relay along with Kasius Perona, Jimar Aing and Julius Nieras at the Rizal Memorial Oval in Manila. Photo by FERNAN NEBRES]

MANILA, December 1, 2005 (STAR) By Abac Cordero - Unruffled by assertions of unfair officiating, Team Philippines seized 17 gold medals yesterday as it continued to set the trend and show the way in the 23rd Southeast Asian Games.

An Internet report where Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra "expressed doubts over fair scoring" greeted the hundreds of RP athletes even before the first of the dayís 64 gold medals was disputed.

But the resilient Filipinos showed no ill effects as Sheila Mae Perez, the diver from Davao, ruled the 1-meter springboard in Los Banos, and became the countryís first triple-gold winner in this SEAG edition.

It was the first gold for the day for the hosts. Her fellow Filipino athletes simply followed suit.

And as of 11 last night, Team Philippines kept its grip on the overall lead with 58 gold, 38 silver and 44 bronze medals with five action-packed days left.

Vietnam, the reigning overall champion, is still lurking behind with 39-33-40, followed by mighty dangerous Thailand at 29-45-51, Malaysia at 23-21-22 and Indonesia at 17-25-33.

With its present medal haul, Team Philippines has already surpassed its golden harvest of 49 in Vietnam two years ago. As it is, the Filipinos are also bound to improve on their previous fourth-place finish.

Once again, wushu showed grace under pressure, winning five gold medals followed by wrestling with three, rowing two, and diving, swimming, athletics, bowling, taekwondo, billiards and fencing one each.

Yesterday was the last day of competition in wushu, athletics and wrestling. Their athletes tried to give it their best and tried to win at all costs, even if it meant being disqualified in the process.

So far, wushu has delivered the most number of golds for the country with 11 followed by athletics with eight. Wushu only had six golds in 2003 and athletics eight, the most for Team Philippines.

Athletics could have won two but Eduardo Buenavista, humbled in the 10,000-m race by Thailandís Boonthung Srisung the other day, was stripped of the 5,000-m gold he thought he had already won.

Buenavista was found guilty of nudging Srisung heading into the final 50 meters of yesterdayís race and was later disqualified. As a result, the Filipino Olympian will go home empty-handed.

"He tried to cheat in front of his countrymen," said a Thai reporter.

Earlier in the day, it was his Prime Minister who grabbed the sports headlines back home with a story where he questioned the Philippines "unusually big lead in medal race."

The story described the Philippines as "not a typical top three SEA Games nation" and said Thaksin might raise the issue in Decemberís Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Malaysia.

The Philippine SEA Games Organizing Committee said while it "respects the reported concern" of the Thai official, it also stands firm in the "commitment to the highest standards of sportsmanship and fair play."

Back to the action, Rhea May Rifani won the 52 kg sanshou event in wushu and towed teammates Eduard Folayang (79 kg) Rene Catalan (52 kg), Aida Yang (daoshu) and Vicky Ting (jianshu)to the winnerís podium of the Emilio Aguinaldo College in Manila.

The RP wrestlers also had a wonderful day with Marcus Valda winning in menís 96 kgs, Cristina Villanueva in womenís 51 kgs and Gemma Silverio in womenís 59 kgs. The RP teamís intensive training in Mongolia has started to bear fruit.Over at the La Mesa Dam in Quezon City, Benjamin Tolentino was firm with his strokes, winning the golds in the single lightweight and menís pair (sculls) where he was paired with Jose Rodriguez.The other gold winners for the Philippines in the controversial day were double-gold winner Miguel Molina (200 individual medley), the RP menís track team of Cashus Perona, Jimar Aing, Ernie Candelario and Julies Nieras

(4x400 relay), Japoy Lizardo of taekwondo (finweight), CJ Suarez and Ernesto Gatchalian Jr. (bowling doubles), Alex Pagulayan and Dennis Orcullo in 9-ball doubles, and the epee team of fencers Wilfredo Vizcayno, Avelino Victorino, Armando Vernal and Richard Gomez.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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