By TITO S. TALAO
TOKYO – The path has been lit for gymnast Carlos Yulo, boxer Nesthy Petecio and taekwondo jin Kurt Barbosa when they make their much-awaited debuts Saturday during Day 2 of the XXXII Olympiad.
Team Philippines’ campaign in the pandemic-delayed Summer Games here, briefly shaken by news of a COVID-19 case among its ranks, got off to a windblown start as rower Cris Nievarez, towered over in length and built by opponents from Croatia and Russia, qualified to the quarterfinals of the men’s single sculls Friday by placing third in heat No. 5 of the preliminaries at the Sea Forest Waterway.
Nievarez’s time of 7 minutes and 22.97 seconds over the 2000 meter Olympic distance catapulted him to the 24-man quarters on Sunday and averted having to get through to the semis via a crunching repechage on Saturday.
Croatia’s Damir Martin checked in first at 7:09.17 after breaking away in the first 500 meters. Less than six minutes behind is Russia’s Alexander Vyazovkin at 7:14.95, some eight minutes ahead of Nievarez.
“Masarap sa pakiramdan na sa unang race ko e maganda ang naging resulta,” said Nievarez. “Ngayon ang target naman po e mag-pangatlo uli sa quarterfinals para makapasok sa AP semifinals.”
The Croatian rower towed the field in dominant fashion in the first 500 meters, with Nievarez duelling for second spot against the Russian and Nicaragua’s Felix Potoy (7:32.54).
“Hinayaan ko na yung Croatia na mauna, silver medalist yon sa world,” said Nievarez. “Kasabayan ko na halos dikit yung Russian at Nicaraguan.
“Pero sa 750 meters, nauna na ko sa taga-Nicaragua; nag-maintain na lang ako hanggang huli at di ko na hinayaan siyang makalapit.”
Patrick Gregorio, president of the Rowing Association of the Philippines, extolled Nievarez’s virtues.
“Cris qualifying in the quarterfinals is a medal to me,” Gregorio said. “That medal is what I call inspiration. This amiable young man has a big heart.”
Nievarez, 21, from Atimonan, Quezon, earned an Olympic berth by virtue of continental qualification though ranking ninth at the Asia Oceania Qualification Regatta in Tokyo last May.
He moved up the standings after the rowers from the fourth to eighth slots automatically qualified to the Games, allowing Nievarez to take No. 4 and the accompanying Olympic ticket, becoming only the third Filipino rower to reach the grandest of sporting events in 20 years.
Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) President Bambol Tolentino called Nievarez’s performance — surprising though not unexpected, — a ‘morale-booster’ as gymnastics, boxing and taekwondo competitions assume center stage next.
“Magandang simula ito para sa Team Philippines,” said Tolentino. “Nievarez qualifying in the quarterfinals on the first day is a good testament that our athletes have prepared well, despite the pandemic.
“It definitely boosts the morale of all our competing athletes in the next competition days. Isa lang hiling ko — let’s keep our athletes and coaches in our prayers, mga kababayan.”
Butch Ramirez, chairman of the Philippine Sports Commission, shared the sentiment.
“This is an auspicious start for Team Philippines. We are proud of you, Cris. Laban lang. We support you,” said Ramirez, who flew in from Manila Thursday.
Rowing’s delivery came hours before some 19,000 delegates — athletes, coaches, trainers and officials — from 205 countries took to the multi-billion-dollar Olympic Stadium for the traditional parade of nations, now conducted under the strictest of health protocols due the coronavirus pandemic, which reportedly has now afflicted over 90 individuals in the Olympic Village.
The ceremony comes off the wraps at 8 p.m.
With a sprinkling of spectators allowed — local and foreign — it was left to the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Para Games (TOCOG) to pull off something memorable out of a near-empty cauldron bereft of pomp, pageantry and spectacle as previous Olympic inaugurals.
As few as 10,000 fans are expected.
With Nievarez safely in the quarters, three of Team Philippines’ brightest hopes for a first-ever gold medal wade into the fray as action starts to heat up.
Featherweight Nesthy Petecio kicks off the Round of 32 in the boxing event by clashing with Marcelat Sakobi Matshu of the Democratic Republic of Congo at the Kokugikan Arena
Ranked No. 7 in the tournament, Petecio, 29, who earned a ticket to the Games by virtue of having the highest standing in the women’s featherweight class (54-57 kgs) will take on the meet’s 25-year-old No. 11 boxer, a campaigner in the World Championship and African Games who took up law at the University of Kinshasa.
In gymnastics, Yulo begins his quest with the individual All-Around category, looking to reach the finals of his three favorite events —the vault, parallel bars and floor exercise, where he won a historic gold medal in the 2019 FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany.
While both Petecio and Yulo are ranged against world class competition, the luck of the draw saw Barbosa, of Bangued, Abra, immediately facing no less than the No. 1 taekwondo athlete in the world, top Jang Jun, in the under-58 kgs opening match, a showdown that could have cataclysmic impact if the Filipino jin pulls off an upset.