The biggest Asian Games (Asiad) in history opens on Sept. 23 in Hangzhou, China, with over 12,000 athletes participating, or more than the 2020 Tokyo Olympics’ 11,420.
For the 395 Filipino athletes competing in 37 sports from Sept. 23 to Oct. 8, the 19th edition of the quadrennial event—which was delayed a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic—is a chance to not only score a gold-medal haul for the country but also to punch a ticket to the 2024 Paris Olympics.
In the 2018 Asiad held in Jakarta, Indonesia, the Philippines took home 4 gold, 2 silver, and 15 bronze medals to finish 19th of 37 participating countries. It was a slight improvement from 22nd place in the 2014 Asiad held in Incheon, South Korea.
This time, the Philippines will miss two of its 2018 Asiad gold medalists, Carlos Yulo and Yuka Saso. World champion gymnast Yulo will compete in the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Belgium on Sept. 30, a qualification event for the Paris Olympics. Saso is now a professional golfer and carries a Japanese passport.
Nevertheless, other Filipino star athletes are expected to pitch in to surpass the country’s four gold medals in 2018.
The Philippines’ first and only Olympic gold medalist, Hidilyn Diaz-Naranjo, will compete in the 59-kg weightlifting division (from the previous 55 kg). It’s a development she welcomes because that is the weight division in which she will be competing in the Paris Olympics, the host country having scrapped the 55-kg category.
Then there are skateboarder Margielyn Didal, a gold medalist in Jakarta in 2018, and world champion pole vaulter EJ Obiena. They will serve as the Philippines’ flag bearers at the opening ceremony this Saturday.
On a mission
Obiena will be on a mission to avenge his 7th-place finish at the 2018 Asian Games. He is perfectly honed for it, having podiumed at every world championship he has competed in, helping him to climb to No. 2 in world ranking per the World Athletics Organization. He owns new Asian and national records, having hurdled the 6-meter height during the Bergen Jump Challenge in Norway last June 10.
The 27-year-old Obiena is also the first Filipino to secure a spot at the 2024 Paris Olympics, having cleared a 5.82-m jump at the Wanda Diamond League’s Bauhaus Galan meet in Stockholm last July 2.
Aside from Diaz-Naranjo, Obiena and Didal, the Philippines is pinning its hopes on golfer Lois Kaye Go, who won the women’s team gold with former teammates Saso and Bianca Pagdanganan in the last Asiad. Now joining Go is 16-year-old Rianne Malixi, who is ranked 75th in the world among amateur players.
Of course, there is Alex Eala, the 2022 US Open girls’ division champion, who will compete in the women’s singles and mixed doubles. She is No. 191 in the Women’s Tennis Association ranking and will face heavyweights like host China’s Zheng Qinwen (No. 22) and Zhu Lin (No. 31).
Other gold-medal potentials are in the Philippines’ boxing team, such as Emir Felix Marcial who will compete in the highest weight class of his career at 80 kg (more than 6 kg heavier than his pro weight class of middleweight, the organizers having scrapped the 74-kg division). Tokyo Olympics silver medalist Nesthy Petecio, who turned 31 last April, considers the Asiad her last chance to get a boxing gold medal, while Carlo Paalam, also a Tokyo Olympics silver medalist, will try to win in the 51 kg category, down from the 54-kg weight class in which he used to fight.
Winning a gold and silver for these boxers means outright qualification for the Paris Olympics.
Swimmer Kayla Noelle Sanchez, who won two medals for Canada in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, will compete in the Asiad as a Filipino citizen, the World Aquatics having given her the green light to play for the Philippines last July 6.
Sanchez, 22, will compete in the women’s 50-m and 100-m freestyle as well as in the 100-m backstroke, events in which she could end the national swimming team’s medal drought in the Asian Games. The last one to medal was Raymond Papa (bronzes in the men’s 100-m and 200-m backstroke) during the 1998 Asiad in Bangkok.
Hurdler Robyn Lauren Brown, a gold medalist in the women’s 400-m hurdles of the 25th Asian Athletics Championships in July, will try to surpass her previous achievements in recent Southeast Asian Games: silver in the 400-m hurdles in Cambodia in 2023, bronze in Hanoi in 2022, and another bronze in Manila in 2019.
Other Asian Games medals for the Philippines may come from the martial arts team, with the likes of Meggie Ochoa and Annie Ramirez (jiu-jitsu), Junna Tsukii (karate), Kiyomi Watanabe (judo), and Kirstie Elaine Alora (taekwondo) competing.
To serve as additional encouragement to the athletes participating in the Asiad, Philippine Olympic Committee president Bambol Tolentino pledged an extra P1 million on top of the P2-million bonus for each Asiad gold medalist provided under Republic Act No. 10699, or the National Athletes and Coaches Benefits and Incentives Act. Silver medalists will be entitled to P1 million, and bronze medalists P400,000.
“I hope this will motivate our athletes to work even harder and perform better in the Asian Games,” Tolentino said during the send-off ceremony held on Sept. 18 at the Philippine International Convention Center in Pasay City.