Preliminary round matches in polo, floorball, football, netball, beach volleyball, and water polo preceded the opening ceremony Saturday at the Philippine Arena. There are high expectations for the opening ceremony that will be capped by the ignition of the Southeast Asian Games flame in the much-talked about multi-million-peso cauldron, though the method for illumination still remains shrouded in mystery.
Notwithstanding all the gamesmanship already exhibited by SEA games organizers, officials, volunteers, media, and some of the athletes concerning accommodations, pick-up times, sustenance, and procedures, the flame will be lit and the games will begin.
For Team Philippines, the host athletes, the opportunity is grand. Competing in familiar territory, presumably with the hometown crowd as back-up, expectations are high, and rightfully so, but under intense scrutiny and added pressure, can they deliver? The hope is that they do, with flying colors. For sure, fans would love to hear the Philippine National Anthem played over and over again as Pinoy athletes rack up gold medals, see the Philippine flag repeatedly being raised, and witness their sporting heroes, their "atletang Pilipino" (Filipino athletes), triumph.
This is the fourth time the Philippines is hosting the SEA Games and, historically, the performance of the country has gotten better and better, from third overall in 1981, to second overall in 1991, and then overall leader in 2005. Undoubtedly, home court means something. To some of our athletes, home court means everything. The nation needs to push this advantage to the hilt. We are all in this together.
Each venue, each competition, will showcase a different flavor. What remains the same are the stakes. There are athletes in Team Pilipinas who are merely in their teens, while there are those who are grizzled veterans, those who have participated in not just previous SEA Games, but in Asian Games and Olympics, and other world championships as well. There are a throng of first-timers, looking to test the waters in preparation for future events.
Among those who may be participating in their last SEA Games are billiards legend Efren "Bata" Reyes, long-jumper Marestella Torres-Sunang, and cager LA Tenorio. All three have seen sporting glory in their past and are considered Philippine legends in their respective areas of competition, and in Bata's case he will always be deemed one of the best, if not the best, the world has ever seen.
Efren, the man whose nickname "Bata" means "the kid", is no longer that. Far from it. He is now 65 years old, and, by his own admission, his steady hand around the table is wavering. A two-time gold and four-time bronze medal winner in the SEA Games, he seeks to win another medal in the three-cushion carom men's singles event this year. It should be splendid to watch him try.
Torres-Sunang, now 38, will look to leap towards more SEA Games medals after having medaled in six previous editions of the biennial contest (four golds, two bronzes). The former Olympian has shown strong form even in recent years, and she still holds the SEA Games record in her event. If ever this is her last run, hopefully she can end it on the podium with a medal 'round her neck.
Tenorio, the senior member of the Gilas Pilipinas squad that will defend the country's basketball gold (Chris Ross is a year younger) is playing in the SEA Games for the first time, in an all-PBA player line-up, also a first. Though only 35 and still playing at a very high level in the pros, this could be the first and last go-around for him at these games since, traditionally the SEA Games men's basketball team has been composed of university and college standouts, this year being an exception after a lackluster performance at the FIBA World Cup. It will be interesting to see LA school the younger guards from the other Southeast Asian nations with his veteran moves and smarts.
Each athlete has his own story. Each team is out to make history. The motto "Sama-sama sa SEA Games" (All together for the SEA Games) applies not only to them, but to each and every one of the Filipino fans.