FLASHBACK: First Pinoy Olympians were the most bemedalled
Swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso, who won bronze medals in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics and 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, was the only Filipino in history to win multiple Olympic medals. He died as a war hero in World War II (photo courtesy of the International Swimming Hall of Fame).
As Filipino athletes seek Olympic glory anew with the 31st staging of the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, it is indeed inspiring to look back at the first Pinoy Olympians who made their mark in the early years of the leading international sporting event.
In fact, these Pinoys have made a good account of themselves as they competed against the world’s best.
Trackster David Nepomuceno was the Philippines’ very first and lone Olympian in the country’s Olympic debut in the 1924 Paris Games, six years after the country was first recognized as an official member of the International Olympic Committee.
Nepomuceno earned his spot and distinction after beating celebrated Far Eastern Games sprint king and compatriot Fortunato Catalan in a qualifying run.
He carried the national colors during the Games’ opening ceremonies in the Olympic Stadium of the Colombes in Paris, together with his coach, Regino Ylanan, who was the founder of the National Collegiate Athletic Association of the Philippines.
Yet while Nepomuceno did prove he had the skill to run the sprint, it wasn’t enough to outclass more experienced runners in the Games.
In the preliminary trials in both the 100-meter and 200-meter dash, Nepomuceno finished fourth place in both races, preventing him from moving on to the quarterfinals.
Hurt yet motivated by his loss, Nepomuceno went on to the Manila Far Eastern Games the following year to win the Gold in the 200-meter dash and the Silver in the 100-meter dash. In the 1927 Far Eastern Games in Shanghai, China, Nepomuceno won the Gold in the 100-meter dash and the bronze in the 200-meter dash.
First Pinoy Olympic medalist
But the country got its first taste of Olympic glory only a few years after.
Swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso won the Philippines’ first Olympic medal, a bronze, in the 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympics. Yldefonso, known as the “Ilocano Shark,” made one superb final surge in the last lap of the 200-m breaststroke finals to end up third behind Yoshiyuki Tsuruta of Japan and Erich Rudemacher of Germany, gold and silver medalists, respectively.
Yldefonso duplicated this feat four years later in the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, winning the bronze again in the 200m breaststroke finals, making him the only Filipino in history to win multiple Olympic medals.
Aside from Yldefonso, two more Filipinos won bronze medals making the Los Angeles Games the Philippines’ best participation so far.
Simeon Toribio won the bronze in the high-jump competition while Jose “Cely” Villanueva bagged his own bronze in the bantamweight category in boxing. Two more Pinoy athletes almost won medals. Martin Gizon ended up fourth place in shooting while Yldefonso’s teammate, Jikirum Adjaluddin, finished fifth in the breaststroke finals.
The pre-war medal streak ended in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, with the “Boy Wonder from Albay,” Miguel White, capturing the bronze in the 400-m hurdles.
First play in Olympic hardcourt
In this final staging of the Olympics before the Second World War, the basketball team led by streak shooter Ambrosio Padilla ran rings around the competition, marking the country’s Olympic debut in its most loved sport. It was also the Philippines’ finest performance ever in world basketball, ending the tournament with a 4-1 card, winning against the likes of Italy, Mexico, Estonia, and Uruguay before bowing to the United States. But mysteriously, they were only ranked in the final standings at fifth, behind bronze medalist Mexico, which the Philippines defeated in the preliminaries, 32-30.
Since his prolific campaigns in the Olympics, Yldefonso joined the Philippine scouts as a trooper and became a war hero in the Second World War. After fighting the Japanese in Bataan, Yldefonso survived the Death March and was eventually killed in a Japanese concentration camp in Capas, Tarlac. His remains were never found.
Padilla was elected Senator, while Toribio became a Bohol Congressman. Villanueva, on the other hand, guided his son, Anthony, so well to craft his own path in boxing that he eventually became an Olympic medalist like his dad, winning the silver medal in the featherweight division of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics. This silver finish is the highest place ever reached by a Filipino in the Olympics, which was matched 32 years later by light flyweight Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco in the 1996 Atlanta Games.