Host country advantage: This explains why Vietnam, the host of this year’s 31st Southeast Asian Games (SEAG) is well ahead of its rivals in the medal standing.
At this writing, Vietnam has bagged 99 gold, 65 silver and 64 bronze medals, or a total of 228. Thailand is at No. 2 with 43 gold, 44 silver, and 62 bronze medals, or 149. The Philippines trails them with 34 gold, 38 silver and 50 bronze medals, or 122.
While the Philippines may still haul in more golds before the biennial event concludes on May 23, the best it can aspire for is third place, if not second, which is still sweet. When the Philippines hosted the 30th SEAG on Nov. 30-Dec. 11, 2019, it also reaped the benefits of being a host country: 149 gold, 117 silver, and 120 bronze medals. Interestingly, it was Vietnam that placed a far second, with 98 gold, 85 silver and 105 bronze medals.
Being the host country then, the Philippines had the luxury of fielding more athletes in more sports disciplines; after all, it’s less costly to transport and billet the participants. We also had the privilege of picking and choosing the sports in which our athletes had an edge, like basketball, taekwondo, wushu, triathlon, downhill mountain biking, and dancesport.
The host country could also introduce new sports to the competition, like when the Philippines included, for the first time, skate boarding (in which Margielyn Didal shone with two golds) and e-sports DOTA2, Starcraft II, and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, and other online games in the medal event. As expected, Filipino athletes collected five medals—three golds, one silver, and a bronze—in these events.
Finally, there’s the home crowd energy feeding the athletes of the host country, to inspire them to perform their best. Filipino athletes now in Vietnam can only rely on their fellow athletes and a handful of kababayan in the bleachers.
But so far, our athletes have delivered. Since his underwhelming campaign in the Tokyo Olympics last year, Carlos Yulo has won every tournament he participated in. His latest haul in Vietnam is regarded as his best—five golds and two silvers, the most for a Filipino so far. He is now setting his sights on the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in the United Kingdom in October and the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China (originally scheduled in September but reset to a later date due to resurgent COVID-19 cases).
Months after fearing he will sit out the SEAG due to his rift with the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association, Olympian EJ Obiena successfully defended his men’s pole vault gold medal and even set a new SEAG record of 5.46 meters, shattering his own mark of 5.45m.
Filipino-American Eric Cray extended his reign as the region’s 400m hurdles’ king with another blazing performance on the track to clinch his seventh career gold medal in the SEAG. Cray has set the regional record in the event in the past four editions of the biennial meet since 2013 in Myanmar.
The victory of two-time SEAG gold medalist Kim Mangrobang and rising star Fil-Spanish Fernando Tan Caseres in the 1.5k swim, 40k bike, and 10k run event duplicated the two-gold sweep by triathletes in the 2019 Philippine Games.
We also had surprise performers in Vietnam, such as bowler Merwin Tan who struck gold in the men’s singles event, ending the Philippines’ 11-year gold-medal drought in the biennial meet. Also, Chloe Isleta snapped a 29-year SEAG women’s swimming gold-medal drought for the Philippines when she clocked in at 2 minutes and 18.6 seconds in the 200m backstroke. She became the first Filipino woman to win in the sport since Akiko Thompson topped the 100m and 200m backstroke categories in 1993.
And the Philippines is not done yet, as Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz is expected to breeze through the weightlifting competition in Hanoi. Diaz, who made history as the first Filipino athlete to ever win an Olympic gold medal, isn’t taking anyone lightly as she prepares for her gold-medal bid in the women’s 55kg category on May 20.
There’s also 16-year-old Alex Eala, the No. 2 ranked junior tennis player in the world, debuting for the national team in Vietnam. At this writing, she just cruised to the women’s singles quarterfinal. Despite limited resources and training hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Philippines is within its goal of at least finishing third overall in the medal tally, according to national team chef de mission Ramon Fernandez. He is optimistic that the country will continue to deliver additional golds in athletics, archery, boxing, basketball, bowling, billiards, weightlifting, karatedo, taekwondo, wrestling, canoe-kayak, shooting, sepak takraw, muay thai and lawn tennis.