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The Cordillera Warriors
by Jogin Tamayo

In a country that has yet to win a gold medal in the Olympics, having participated in one can be an achievement in itself.

Filipinos have so far won nine Olympic medals since the country began participating in the quadrennial event in 1924. Swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso won the country’s first-ever medal—a bronze in the 200-meter breast stroke event at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics—and its second bronze at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. The country actually won three medals in 1932, when Simeon Torribio, a high jumper, added a bronze, and bantamweight boxer Jose “Cely” Villanueva clinched another bronze.

Miguel White won a bronze in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the 400-meter hurdles event, while featherweight boxer Anthony Villanueva, a son of Jose, won the country’s first silver medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Villanueva actually lost in a controversial decision to Russian Stanislav Stephaskin in their battle for the gold medal.

Tenpin player Arianne Cerdena won a gold in bowling at the 1988 Seoul Olympics but her gold was not included in the medal tally since bowling was considered only as a demonstration sport. Boxer Leopoldo Serrantes brought home a bronze from Seoul while Roel Velasco won a bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. In taekwondo, bantamweight Stephen Fernandez and featherweight Bea Lucero, a former gymnast, brought home two bronze medals from Barcelona, but they were not included in the medal tally, since taekwondo was also a demo sport then.

Roel’s younger brother Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco won a silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Onyok lost in a controversial decision to Bulgarian Daniel Bojilov in the light-flyweight finals and to date, that was the last medal the country has won.

Despite the elusive search for an Olympic gold medal, there are two local athletes who brought the Cordillera into the prestigious Olympic arena. Hector Begeo, a native of Bauko, Mountain Province, was a three-time Olympian representing the Philippines in 1984 (Los Angeles), 1988 (Seoul), and 1992 (Barcelona). He is the only Filipino to advance into a semi-final in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in an Olympic event during the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

The Olympic steeplechase is the duck-billed platypus of the track and field world, combining several difficult skills into one event, including distance running, hurdling, and long jumping.

The 3,000-meter event includes 28 hurdle jumps and seven water jumps. The jumps begin after the runners pass the finish line for the first time. There are five jumps in each of the final seven laps, with the water jump as the fourth. The jumps are evenly distributed throughout the track. Each runner must go over or through the water pit and must jump each hurdle.

Begeo’s hometown was conducive to his training, with the Cordilleras known for its pristine forest-clad trails and raging rivers. He also boasts an Asian Games bronze medal which he won in 1982, and bagged seven gold medals in different editions of the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games. He is reportedly now based in Australia.

Begeo, together with Asia’s sprint queen Lydia De Vega, long jumper Elma Muros, middle-distance king Isidro del Prado, and throwing events master Erlinda Lavandia were all products of the Gintong Alay program of the 1980s with the objective of snaring gold medals in the Olympics. Gintong Alay was shortlived, after then president Ferdinand Marcos was ousted from power in 1986 and along with it, the Gintong Alay project.

Baguio-based judo player Jerry Dino was the other Olympic local bet, having competed in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Dino debuted in the 1985 SEA Games also as a judo player before his Olympic stints. Unfortunately, he died just as he was bringing down complimentary t-shirts to Manila for athletes leaving for the 21st SEA Games in 2001.

His sudden death became an inspiration for the national judo players. Then judo chief Rey Jaylo urged his judokas to do their “... best out there and make the Philippines proud. Dedicate your medals to Jerry.”

Cordillerans have always excelled in combative sports and it was no wonder that judo, among other games, was one of the local athletes’ tickets to the Olympics. Contrary to its rather physically challenging attributes, judo is a popular martial arts style and Olympic sport with a rich, though relatively recent, history. Breaking the term judo down, ju means “gentle” and do means “the way or path.” Thus, judo translates to “the gentle way.”

With the demise of the successful Gintong Alay program under Michael Keon, it also saw its death in athletics and the rebirth of the Philippines in combative sports. Aside from judo, other contact sports that have brought the Igorot warriors abroad are muay thai, taekwondo, boxing, and wushu.

Among the prominent wushu warriors who stamped their class overseas are sanshou experts Mark Sangiao, Mark Ediva, Benjie Rivera, Roy Docyogen, Mariane Mariano, mixed martial artist Eduard Folayang, and wushu taulo champion Daniel Parantac.

Just as elusive as the Olympic gold medal, Cordillera also missed being placed in the limelight of the Olympic flames. There were wushu bets Rivera and Mariano in the recent 2008 Beijing Olympics, but their bronze medals in wushu-sanshou (sparring) were not counted in the official tally, it being a special or exhibition sport.

However, the sight of that all-important Olympic gold medal seems to grow dimmer every day as petty squabbling and politicking have stymied the country’s quest for international excellence in sports.

National Sports Associations have been forced to disown leaders and setting their own elections that have placed athletes at the losing end.
But with the Igorots’ penchant for ‘fight now, complain later’, the country’s first Olympic gold might just come from the Cordilleras.
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