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Filipino athletes compete with coronavirus to strike gold at Tokyo Olympics

A woman walks past a large-scale reproduction of Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games medal at Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower in Tokyo, Japan, July 14. — REUTERS/KIM KYUNG-HOON

By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Senior Reporter

WEIGHTLIFTER Hidilyn F. Diaz, 30, is one of 19 Filipinos competing in this year’s Olympic games in Tokyo after it got canceled last year amid a coronavirus pandemic.

“We are set to play not only against other athletes but we also have to deal with a deadly virus,” she said by telephone. “It’s just out there and it’s scary.”

Somebody inside the Olympic Village in the Japanese capital tested positive for the coronavirus a week before the games kick off on July 23. More than 11,000 athletes and about 79,000 journalists, officials and staff are expected to attend the global sporting event that runs until Aug. 8.

At least 44 people connected with the games have tested positive since the start of July, most of them contractors, according to the Tokyo 2020 website.

This is despite health and safety protocols contained in a 70-page “playbook” being enforced by Japanese officials.

Under the rules, Olympic participants must be quarantined upon arrival and tested regularly throughout the event. Athletes’ movement inside the Village will be limited and they must leave Tokyo within 48 hours after the games.

Along the way to the July 23 opening ceremonies, International Olympic Committee officials have met resistance, including from Japanese residents. In May, a poll by Asahi Shimbun found that 83% of Japanese voters opposed the Olympics. That resistance seems to have faded, with only 31% favoring a cancellation, according to a June poll by Fuji Television.

The Philippines has a chance of striking gold, with 19 athletes competing in 11 sports, Philippine chef de mission to the Tokyo Olympics Mariano V. Araneta, Jr. said by telephone.

Both the government and private companies have supported the Philippine team to boost their chances of winning, he said. “Support is being given to them both by the government and the private sector and they are showing much determination.”

The road to the Tokyo Olympics has been a difficult one for Filipino athletes, not only physically but mentally as well.

“We have been preparing for the Olympics for three years now,” Tokyo-bound skateboarder Margielyn A. Didal, 22, told a recent news briefing.

“We were ready to go last year and then it was canceled. We didn’t know if it was happening.”

“I really struggled early in the pandemic,” the native of Cebu said. “For three months, I was unable to skate because it was not allowed and we do not have a skate park in my hometown,” she added.

Despite the challenges, confidence is high that this year could be one of the better years for the Philippines in the Olympics — maybe even the year the country wins its first gold medal.

“We can strike something this year, especially with what everyone has gone through,” Philippine Olympian Association Treasurer Stephen V. Fernandez told a news briefing.

“Our athletes did their best to endure this pandemic and continue with their training and look to succeed,” said Mr. Fernandez, a taekwondo bronze medalist in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

“Almost everything in this Olympics is not normal — from the training of the athletes that was greatly disrupted, to the qualification for the different sporting events, and the Olympics proper,” Jose A. Romasanta, former president of the Philippine Olympic Committee and the country’s chef de mission for the 2016 Rio Olympics, said in a Zoom Cloud Meetings interview.

Credit should be given to the athletes for pushing forward with their Olympic dreams despite the pandemic.

“Conditioning definitely is affected by all these cancellations,” he said. “The uncertainty surrounding the Olympics is something they have to bear with mentally,” the former sports official said.

The Philippine Sports Commission, whose budget was realigned to other agencies in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, has been providing the budget for training and preparation of national athletes, including those competing in the Tokyo Olympics.

The agency has released about P2 billion since 2017 for the national team. It also approved a P46.2-million budget for this year’s Olympic campaign.

It covers the airfare, hotel and accommodation and allowances of athletes and officials, as well coronavirus tests before departure, hotel quarantine expenses and insurance for medicines, COVID-19, travel and possible repatriation.

Meanwhile, companies like the MVP Sports Foundation; Smart Communications, Inc.; PLDT, Inc.; and International Container Terminal Services, Inc. continue to support the athletes.

“We, too, have athletes who are capable of winning,” Mr. Araneta said. “They are up there in the rankings in their respective fields. And when you’re at that level, anything can happen.”

Apart from Ms. Diaz and Ms. Didal, who are among the top 20 athletes in the world in their sports, also part of Team Philippines are US Women’s Open champion golfer Yuka Saso, boxer Eumir Felix D. Marcial and world boxing champ Nesthy A. Petecio, world number 6 pole vaulter Ernest John U. Obiena and world gymnastics champion Carlos H. Yulo.

All have been vaccinated against the coronavirus except for Mr. Obiena, whose father Emerson told an online forum by the Philippine Sportswriters Association his son would get vaccinated after the Olympics to avoid disrupting his preparations.

“Everyone wants to win on that stage,” Mr. Romasanta said. “So you have to do your best. The athletes know what their chances are. But strange things have happened in sports.”

He said there is much work to be done and it does not stop even if the country wins a gold. “If we want to sustain a successful Olympic program, we must continue to fine-tune and reevaluate our strategy and have it in tune with the times.”

“The ultimate goal for every athlete in the Olympics is to win the gold, but it is not going to be given that easy,” said Ms. Diaz, a silver medallist in the 2016 Rio Olympics and a competitor in 2008 and 2012 games.

“It’s a battle among the best of the best in the world.”

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