THE GREAT EIGHT: Eight Pinoys who have won medals in the Summer Olympics
Adriel Allen Mercado on Apr 07, 2016 10:06 AM
Roel Velasco (right most), the brother of 1996 Atlanta Olympics silver medalist Mansueto "Onyok" Velasco, also brought home a bronze medal of his own during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics (Photo courtesy of Ed Picson).
The last time the Philippines has medaled in the Olympics was exactly two decades ago, when Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco brought home a silver from the 1996 Atlanta Games. The country has since experienced a medal drought, even when it has participated in the four Olympics thereafter. This year, the Filipinos’ Olympic odyssey continues. But before the Rio Games later this August, let’s look back on the Filipinos who were able to take home medals in the past.
Bronze, Swimming – Men’s 200-Meter Breastroke, 1928
Bronze, Swimming – Men’s 200-Meter Breastroke, 1932
Teofilo Yldefonso is the first Filipino and Southeast Asian to take home an Olympic medal. This he did in 1928, when the Ilocos Norte native grabbed the bronze in the 200-m breastroke men’s swimming event. Yldefonso also holds the distinction of being the only Filipino to bag two medals, as the swimmer repeated the same feat in the 1932 Games. Nicknamed the “Ilocano Shark,” Yldefonso also participated in the 1936 Games, but he only finished 7th in the event.
After his 16-year swimming career, Yldefonso joined the fight against the Japanese during World War II and became a victim of the Bataan Death March. While he survived the punishing trek, the former Olympian passed away in a concentration camp. His remains have never been recovered.
European textbooks labeled Yldefonso as the “father of the modern breastroke” since his unorthodox style would later be adapted by swimmers that share a similar physique to his. The nation’s greatest swimmer (as he would be known later) also had a daughter that would follow his footsteps. Continuing her father’s legacy, Norma Yldefonso participated in the 2nd Asian games, leaving with a silver in tow.
Bronze, Athletics – Men’s High Jump, 1932
Simeon Toribio nabbed a bronze medal in the men’s high jump event in the 1932 Games. This is the Boholano’s second incursion into the world’s premier sporting spectacle since his first foray was in 1928.
Author Jorge Afable claims that Toribio could’ve took home gold if not for the untimely “call of nature.” The story goes that the Filipino athlete had to go through an arduous four-hour contest that called for him to jump over a bar raised at six feet and two inches. While Toribio has accomplished a similar feat already, Afable asserts that the reason why he failed it for the second time was because of the unfortunate “call.”
After his athletics career, Toribio became a civil engineer and was elected as a legislator representing the second district of Bohol from 1941 to 1953.
Bronze, Boxing – Men’s Bantamweight, 1932
Boxing is the Philippines’ strongest sport in the Olympics. In fact, of the country’s nine medals, five of these came from the sport. 1932 was the year in which the nation first won a medal in boxing, courtesy of Jose Villanueva. Competing in the bantamweight division, the Binondo-born Villanueva pocketed the bronze after American Joseph Lang was unable to fight in the match for third place.
After his in-ring career, Villanueva became a boxing trainer. The legendary Gabriel “Flash” Elorde was one of his pupils. Eventually, his son Anthony Villanueva would follow his footsteps and go on to be an Olympic-winning pug as well.
Bronze, Athletics – Men’s 400-Meter Hurdles, 1936
Born to an American father and a Filipino mother, Miguel White competed in the men’s 400-m hurdles during the Hitler-backed 1936 Berlin Games and was able to snatch a bronze. The Fil-Am was the fastest hurdler in the qualifying rounds, but he came up short of a silver by just tenth of a second in the final race. His time of 52.8 seconds was bested by Canadian John Loaring’s time of 52.7 seconds, thus he had to settle for bronze (American Glenn Hardin won the contest by a slightly significant margin).
Like Teofilo Yldefonso, White faced off against the Japanese in the Second World War. He was one of the many casualties of the war, passing away in 1942.
Silver, Boxing – Men’s Featherweight, 1964
The Philippines would fly back home empty-handed from the quadrennial event for the next 28 years. It was worth the wait, though, as the archipelago’s first silver would come in the 1964 Games. The son of bronze medalist Jose Villanueva, Anthony Villanueva notched the silver after losing to Russian Stanislav Stepashkin in controversial fashion. 7,000 spectators booed the 3-2 decision that took away what could have been the country’s first gold medal.
After his triumph in the globe’s grandest sporting event, Villanueva dabbled in show business, starring in five films (akin to the career trajectory of the only other Filipino Olympic silver medalist). He would also try his hand in other professions, including a stint in the 1988 Seoul games as a part of the boxing coaching team. The former pugilist passed away in 2014. Manny Pacquiao referred to him as the “original boxing icon who should never be forgotten by the nation.”
Bronze, Boxing – Men’s Light Flyweight, 1988
The Philippines would again go more than two decades without scoring a medal. In the Seoul Games, boxer Leopoldo Serantes ended the dry spell by seizing a bronze in the men’s light flyweight division. His victory continued what the two generations of Villanuevas started and signaled the beginning of the medal streak of the Philippines in the men’s light flyweight division (the country medaled in this event for three consecutive Olympics).
Now 54 years old and recovering from a chronic obstructive pulmonary illness, Serantes became the first beneficiary of the Anthony Villanueva Trust Fund, which was put up by some of the Philippines’ top sports icons and named after the country’s first Olympic silver medalist.
Bronze, Boxing – Men’s Light Flyweight, 1992
Brother to the Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco, the elder Roel Velasco has been competing in the light flyweight class in the late eighties before seizing the bronze at the 1992 games. His boxing career didn’t end after Barcelona, though, because several years later, Velasco would go on to rack up medals in the 1st Muhammad Ali Invitational Boxing Championships, the Italian Boxing Championships, the Roberto Balado Cup, and the Goodwill Games (the first Filipino to do so).
At 45 years old, Velasco juggles his time serving the Philippine Navy and coaching the Philippine Boxing team.
Silver, Boxing – Men’s Light Flyweight, 1996
Four years after his older brother basked in Olympic glory, it was Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco’s turn. He one-upped Roel’s performance, as Onyok left Atlanta with a silver in hand, which is only the country’s second and its last taste of a medal. The five-foot fighter could very well have snatched the gold (he and Anthony Villanueva parallel in a lot of ways) had it not been for the finals bout dubbed as “The Robbery in Atlanta” that saw his opponent, Bulgarian Daniel Petrov, triumph amidst controversy.
Velasco is easily the most recognizable Olympic medalist because aside from being the last one to not go home empty-handed, he has also enjoyed a successful showbiz career as a comedian.
There’s the heroic eight. Once the 2016 Rio Olympics is over, more names would hopefully be added to this list of Filipino Olympic icons.