Filipinos leave lasting mark on 19th Asian Games

Philippines’ players celebrate their win against Jordan at the men’s gold medal basketball game between Jordan and Philippines during the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou in China’s eastern Zhejiang province on October 6, 2023. (Photo by WILLIAM WEST / Agence France-Presse)

As the final wave of its hard-fighting athletes flies home a day after the conclusion of the 19th Asian Games (Asiad), the Philippines left an indelible mark in this green city of electric cars and ultramodern artificial intelligence that will live on for generations.

The gold medal in men’s basketball — the nation’s predominant pastime — is back on Philippine shores after Gilas Pilipinas defied the odds in the knockout stages and won in swashbuckling style over Jordan in the finals for a win branded to be “worth a thousand golds.’’

While that victory restored the country’s rightful claim to the throne in Asian hoops after 61 years, it didn’t make the headlines here after Gilas tore down host China’s great wall in the semifinals.

The big celebration happened back home as proud basketball-crazed Filipinos reclaimed bragging rights of superiority in the continent.

But it shouldn’t overshadow EJ Obiena, the world’s No. 2 pole vaulter and Asia’s best who quenched the nation’s thirst for a first gold in these Games after several failed attempts in various sports earlier that saw some of the country’s blue-chip athletes hit the showers early.

Nearly a week later, jiujitsu grapplers Meggie Ochoa and Annie Ramirez reprised their roles as the finest in their craft by emerging victorious in the women’s 48 kilograms and 57 kg divisions, respectively.

And who can forget boxer Eumir Marcial, who fought in the gold medal match of the men’s 80-kg boxing event only to lose to what Filipino sports officials believe was a clear hometown decision against China’s Tanglatihan Tuohetaerbieke?

“That match was ours. It could have been our fifth gold,’’ said Philippine Olympic Committee president Bambol Tolentino. “Regardless, I’m very proud of what we accomplished.’’

Marcial, nevertheless, achieved his main objective of nailing a spot in next year’s Paris Olympics.

“It’s still a very, very good finish, better than all our previous Asian Games because of our victory in basketball,” Tolentino said. There was a grave concern following Marcial’s silver performance that added to sanda warrior Arnel Mandal’s second-place output a week before.

Gold medallist Philippines' Margarita Ochoa (2L), silver medallist United Arab Emirates's Balqees Abdulla (1L), bronze medallists Vietnam's Phung Thi Hue (2R) and Thailand's Pechrada Kacie pose for a photograph at a medal ceremony for Ju-jitsu women's 48kg event during the Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, in China's eastern Zhejiang province on October 5, 2023.

Gold medallist Philippines’ Margarita Ochoa (2L), silver medallist United Arab Emirates’s Balqees Abdulla (1L), bronze medallists Vietnam’s Phung Thi Hue (2R) and Thailand’s Pechrada Kacie pose for a photograph at a medal ceremony for Ju-jitsu women’s 48kg event during the Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, in China’s eastern Zhejiang province on October 5, 2023. (Photo by ADEK BERRY / Agence France-Presse)

Philippines' Ernest John Obiena in action during the Men's Pole Vault Final

Philippines’ Ernest John Obiena in action during the Men’s Pole Vault Final (Photo by JEREMY LEE / Reuters)

Annie Ramirez reacts after winning the gold in women’s jiu-jitsu in the Asian Games.

Annie Ramirez reacts after winning the gold in women’s jiu-jitsu in the Asian Games. (Pool photo from the Philippine Olympic Committee)

When the hope to at least match the gold medals won in the 2018 Asiad in Indonesia was running out, the Gilas collection of PBA (Philippine Basketball Association) stars sprang a surprise by turning back Iran in the quarterfinals and winning the semifinal in hostile territory in front of an adverse hometown crowd.

The Nationals met a similar disapproval in the gold-medal game against the Jordanians, but weren’t denied for repeating the feat that happened six decades back in the 1962 Jakarta Asiad where hall of famer Caloy Loyzaga still ruled the roost.

“Witnessing our Gilas Pilipinas take back the Asian basketball throne was one of the monumental victories for Team Philippines here in Hangzhou,’’ said Philippine Sports Commission Chair Richard Bachmann, whose father, the late Olympian Kurt Bachmann, played on that team.

Bachmann was a former national dribbler himself and starred for La Salle before playing for Alaska in the PBA. But it took a lifetime before he could personally witness how his father basked in glory.

“My father, who was a part of the team that last won the gold in 1962, would be very proud of this Gilas squad, which showed resilience and team spirit,’’ added Bachmann.

17th overall

Junna Tsukii was the last Filipino athlete to see action here, and fell short in adding to Team PH’s medal cache, leaving the delegation with a final count of four gold, two silver and 12 bronze medals before the elaborate closing ceremonies on Sunday night.

As expected, China again wound up superior in its third hosting of the Games with 201 golds, 111 silvers and 71 bronze medals.

“We had four golds, an Asian Games record from Obiena and two from jiujitsu, replacing the two that we lost in women’s golf (won in 2018 in Jakarta),” said Tolentino.

He added: “We finished 17th overall and that’s another accomplishment. Let’s look at the final placing and not the number of medals.”

The Philippines came three bronze medals short of duplicating the medal hoard in 2018 and yet the atmosphere became more vibrant with the basketball gold.

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“We simply showed the entire continent that we are No. 1 again [in the sport the country loves most]. As I’ve said, this victory is worth a thousand golds,’’ said a beaming Tolentino.

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