Ten Sporting Moments That Made Us Proud To Be Pinoy

There have been several sporting moments in our history as a nation that brought us together. Here are ten of the best.

Compared to other countries, especially those in Europe and the Americas, the Philippines doesn’t exactly have a rich tradition in sports. But that hardly means that we haven’t had our share of sporting milestones on the international stage.

In celebration of Philippine Independence Day, we list in chronological order ten historic sporting moments that gave us goosebumps, brought us to tears, and made us want to run out in the streets waving the Philippine flag.

The Philippines wins bronze in the FIBA World Championship (1954)

This tournament was the precursor of what is now known as the FIBA World Cup. The 1954 edition, just the second to be played, was held in Rio de Janeiro. The Philippines, led by arguably the greatest Filipino basketball player of all time in Carlos Loyzaga, copped the bronze medal behind the hosts and the champions United States.

To this day, the feat remains the highest finish ever by an Asian country in the tournament. It sparked a basketball renaissance back home, and many sports historians point to it as the moment that ignited Filipinos’ passion for the sport and turned it into the national pastime.

Afterwards came three consecutive Asian Games gold medals, appearances in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, and gold medals in the first two Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC) Championships in 1960 and 1963. And while other Asian countries have eventually caught up, the fire of basketball still burns brightest in the Philippines.

In his seminal book “When We Were Champions”, author Noel Albano wrote of the team’s Manila homecoming: “On November 16, Manila laid out a red-carpet welcome for the players, who were mobbed at the airport and ‘blinded by the flashes from photographers.’ Cars bearing them and their fans drove in a convoy to Rizal Memorial Coliseum. In a time much simpler, they received the ‘most heartwarming, most elaborate welcome ceremonies ever accorded postwar sports heroes.”

Flash Elorde inaugurates the Araneta Coliseum in style (1960)

The greatest Filipino boxer before Manny Pacquiao came along was Gabriel “Flash” Elorde, who picked the perfect venue to begin what would become a seven-year reign as the World Junior Lightweight champion.

On March 16, 1960, the Araneta Coliseum formally opened its doors to the Filipino public. At the time, it was the largest covered coliseum in the world, and its first offering was the world championship fight between the challenger Elorde and the defending champion Harold Gomes of the United States.

Over 35,000 fans jammed the Big Dome to watch Elorde wrest the crown via a seventh-round knockout. An additional 15,000 waited outside. Several of them rushed to the ring after Gomes was counted out, as they planned to lift Elorde on their shoulders.

It was the start of Elorde’s title reign, and of the Araneta Coliseum’s sixty-plus-year affinity with Philippine sporting events.

Lydia De Vega wins gold in the Asian Games 100m dash (1982)

Lydia had first burst onto the athletics scene during the 1981 Manila Southeast Asian Games, winning gold in the women’s 200m and 400m. The following year she took a gigantic leap, capturing the gold medal in the women’s century dash at the 1982 New Delhi Asian Games.

All eyes in the Philippines were glued to their TV sets for the women’s 100m final. And for nearly 12 seconds, the entire country was one in screaming and spurring on Lydia to the finish line. She got there first, hitting the tape at 11.76 seconds and beating her great rival and local favorite P. T. Usha by 0.19 of a second.

Lydia returned to Manila a newly-minted celebrity, becoming the face of Philippine sports for the next several years and inspiring countless youngsters to follow her path. She would duplicate her feat four years later in Seoul in what would turn out to be the last Asian Games athletics gold medal by a Filipino athlete until EJ Obiena broke through last year.

The local commentator said it all as De Vega methodically inched ahead in the dying seconds of the race: “Lydia De Vega. Lydia. Lydia! Lydiaaaaaa!!!!!”

Efren Reyes wins the World 9 Ball title (1999)

It was already around three o’clock in the morning in the Philippines, but thousands of Filipinos were still awake and eager to watch “Bata” weave his magic in Cardiff, Wales for the final of the 1999 World Pool Championship.

By this time, Efren Reyes was already a household name in the Philippines. He was acknowledged as arguably the best pool player on the planet and widely respected and admired as much for his other-worldly skills with the cue stick as for his grace and humility.

The one thing he was lacking was a signature title win that could be witnessed by his countrymen. Although he had already won numerous trophies, the bulk of them were achieved stateside and were not available on local television.

Everything changed with the advent of the cable TV industry in the Philippines, and now, for the first time, Filipinos were able to watch live Reyes, Django Bustamante and other pool great compete in the World Pool Championship.

Never mind the time difference that caused the tournament to air at ungodly hours in Manila. Millions of Filipinos stayed awake to watch The Magician outclass Chang Hao-Ping in the final, 17-8, to pocket 50,000 dollars and the title of world 9 ball champion.

Soon after, billiard halls began sprouting up in every corner of the country. Everyone suddenly wanted to be like Bata. One such youngster was a 14-year-old named Carlo Biado, who was so inspired by Reyes’ win that he gave up his part-time job as a golf caddy to focus on billiards.

Reyes’ cultural and commercial impact was so huge that after he said in the post-match interview that he now had money to buy his wife a new Honda CRV, the local Honda branch in the Philippines gladly gave him one for free.

Manny Pacquiao sends Oscar De La Hoya into retirement (2008)
Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines (R) punches Oscar de la Hoya of US on the face during their welterweights showdown at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, on December 6, 2008. Filipino boxing icon Pacquiao stopped Oscar de la Hoya after eight rounds, defying a disadvantage in size with a brutally dominant performance in their welterweight showdown. AFP PHOTO/Jewel SAMAD (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD / AFP)

Not many gave Pacquiao much of a chance to defeat the legendary De La Hoya. In fact, one overzealous Philippine congressman even filed a bill seeking to prevent Pac-Man from pushing through with the fight, fearing the worst for Manny.

As it turned out, the congressman should have feared for the safety of The Golden Boy instead.

Manny was already well-known by the time the fight was announced, with big wins over Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera and Juan Manuel Marquez. But it was his performance against De La Hoya that catapulted him from boxing star to global icon. For De La Hoya was not just another high-profile opponent; he was the face of boxing for much of the 1990s and early 2000s, a first ballot Hall-of-Famer and one of the most recognizable sportspersons in the world.

I watched the fight live in a jampacked movie theater. When De La Hoya quit on his stool, the whole venue erupted. Complete strangers were exchanging high fives, and those who knew each other hugged it out.

The Azkals pull off the Miracle in Hanoi (2010)
Philippines’ Philip James Placer Younghusband (3rd L) and teammates celebrate after he scored the second goal for his team during a AFF Suzuki Cup’s match against Vietnam in Hanoi on December 5, 2010. Philippines won 2-0. AFP PHOTO/HOANG DINH Nam (Photo by HOANG DINH NAM / AFP)

In what is still one of the most remarkable ultimate underdog sports story involving a Philippine athlete or team, the Azkals entered the lion’s den that was My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi, and in front of a hostile crowd of over 40,000, stunned the heavily favored Vietnamese side by a score of 2-0 in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup.

The magnitude of that upset cannot be underestimated. At that point in time, Southeast Asian opponents viewed a match with the Philippines as a virtual win. In fact, the Azkals had to go through a qualifying tournament just to play in the tournament proper. Vietnam was considered a regional powerhouse, and their home pitch was among the most intimidating in Southeast Asia.

Somehow, against the odds, a miracle happened. The Azkals scored first, which by itself would have already been a cause for celebration. Then, incredibly, Vietnam couldn’t find the back of the net. Late in the second half, the Azkals scored again to put the outcome beyond doubt.

The Philippines eventually made its way to the semifinals of the tournament for the first time ever, and though they advanced no further, their achievement earned them a hero’s welcome and triggered a surge in football interest in the country.

Gilas Pilipinas breaks The Curse of Korea, qualifies for the FIBA World Cup (2013)

There is a generation of Filipino basketball fans who grew up not knowing what it was like to watch the Philippines beat South Korea in men’s basketball. And it wasn’t just that. The manner by which the Philippines would lose to Korea was enough to make grown men cry.

So when Gilas Pilipinas drew Korea in the semifinals of the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship with a slot in the 2014 World Cup on the line, the team was not only battling one of the best Asian squads, it was also up against the so-called “Curse of Korea.”

In front of a sellout crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena, Korea appeared to be on the brink of extending the curse and dealing Pinoys another heartbreak. Luckily, Jimmy Alapag came to the rescue as Gilas broke the curse and qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 35 years.

At the end of the game, thousands of Filipinos were once again crying. Only this time they were tears of joy.

Hidilyn Diaz wins the Philippines’ first Olympic gold (2021)
Philippines’ Hidilyn Diaz reacts after placing first in the women’s 55kg weightlifting competition during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo International Forum in Tokyo on July 26, 2021. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

It was a shame that Hidilyn’s gold-medal winning feat was not shown live on free TV, thus depriving millions of Filipinos of the chance to personally witness her win our country’s first Olympic gold medal.

But for those of us lucky enough to have watched it live on a pay TV Olympic channel, it was an experience we will cherish for the rest of our lives.

Watching Hidilyn execute the winning move, slowly but surely extending her arms fully and straightening her legs to secure a good lift and the gold medal, was like watching your one-year-old child attempting to walk for the first time: nerve-wracking, at times frightening, but once done, the feeling of joy was immeasurable.

The coup de grace was hearing Lupang Hinirang being played for the first time at an Olympic gold medal ceremony. Those who had somehow remained dry-eyed after Hidilyn’s final lift and her subsequent tear-filled celebration were finally moved to tears as well.

One PBA champion coach’s message to me on X summed it all up:  “Maraming championships akong nakuha, pero di ako naluha kagaya ng kahapon. Buong katawan kahapon ko lang naranasan mag chill habang nangingilid ang aking luha. Grabe talaga!”

The Filipinas make FIFA Women’s World Cup history (2023)

Sometimes, your favorite Philippine team or athlete doesn’t need win it all to make your pride swell. Just being there – and maybe scoring a historic goal as a bonus – is more than enough.

Prior to 2023, the Philippines had never participated in a FIFA World Cup final. All that changed after the Filipinas qualified for that year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

Understandably, expectations were modest for the team heading into the tournament. But on July 21, when the national anthem was played right before the Filipinas’ Group A match against Switzerland, several team officials were seen on camera weeping while singing along to Lupang Hinirang.

The Filipinas failed to make it to make it out of the group stage, but they managed to snag a major consolation prize after Sarina Bolden’s header produced the country’s first goal in the World Cup and set the stage for its first-ever win.

Back home, viewing parties sprouted up all over the country for each match, and the Filipinas inspired young girls to pick up the sport as well.

Gilas Pilipinas wins Asian Games gold (2023)
Gilas Pilipinas celebrate after beating China, 77-76, in the semifinals of the Hangzhou Asian Games. (POC/PSC)

Ten years after finally conquering South Korea, Gilas Pilipinas again stirred national pride by once again ending an even longer drought. They did it in two parts. Part 1 was the stunning semifinal win over hosts China, who had previously never lost an Asian Games gold medal on home soil, and who looked well on their way to relegating Gilas Pilipinas to the bronze medal match after taking a 9-point lead with around two minutes left.

Then Justin Brownlee happened. The naturalized player’s back-to-back triples in the last 30 seconds gave the entire nation a collective adrenaline rush strong enough to electrify a small town.

Part 2 came a couple of days later, when Gilas completed their historic run with a conquest of Jordan in the championship game, securing the Philippines’ first gold medal in Asian Games men’s basketball in 61 years.

It was sweet vindication for the Gilas program after this particular team was assembled in haste and some players were deemed eligible because they were not included in the Asian Games master list. Tim Cone himself had just been appointed mere weeks before the tournament’s start.

And once they got there, things didn’t exactly break their way. A numbing loss to Jordan in the group stage set Gilas on a more difficult path to the gold medal. Aside from facing the hosts in the semifinals, they had to go through regional heavyweight Iran in the quarterfinals, where they nearly blew a 20-point lead before hanging on.

By the time Gilas faced Jordan in the gold medal game, they just seemed destined to win it all. They made sure there would be no repeat of the group stage loss, and when the final buzzer sounded, the Asian Games men’s basketball title had come home at last.  

Banner images from AFP and POC/PSC.

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