By TITO S. TALAO
TOKYO — The golden glow cast by Olympic weightlifting heroine Hidilyn Diaz will light the way for Nesthy Petecio Tuesday when the feisty featherweight fights for the Philippines’ second gold medal in the XXXII Olympiad at the Kokugikan Arena here.
Petecio secured the silver Saturday after going Kamikaze in rounds 2 and 3 against towering Italian Irma Testa to overcome an early deficit and pull off a 4-1 split decision victory in the 54-57 kg semifinals.
At 12 noon (Manila time), Petecio, 29, the reigning world champion in her division, faces 20-year-old Japanese Sena Irie, who barely got past her last two opponents, including Great Britain’s Karriss Artingstall, whom she defeated 3-2 in the other feather semifinal bout.
But Irie owns the distinction of having beaten Petecio in an Olympic Qualifier in Amman, Jordan last year, and although the Japanese boxer won’t have the hometown crowd behind her due to COVID-19 venue restrictions, she will have her people cheering close by, even in spirit.
A slow start nearly cost Petecio her semifinal against Testa, as she had to scramble in the final six minutes to change the judges’ minds.
A similar strategy, if indeed that was the plan against the 5-foot-8 Italian, may not work this time, especially in a close semis where the sympathetic scoring could lean toward the fighter from the host nation.
Battling for the Games highest honor had been a fervent dream for Philippine athletes from the first time pioneer David Nepomuceno set foot on an Olympic venue — in Paris in 1924 — competing in the 100 and 200 meter events.
Three had gone as far as to clinch silver medals, including Diaz in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, while six brought home seven bronzes, two of them behind the strokes of swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso in the pool — the first in 1928 in Amsterdam and the other in 1932 in Los Angeles — as part of a three-medal haul for the Philippines.
Claiming podium finishes, as well, that year in LA were 400m high jumper Simeon Toribio and bantamweight Jose Villanueva.
Winning the first-ever gold medal remained an unreachable achievement, however, a star in a far-off galaxy, and it ultimately became a national obsession, as much as a running joke, as one quest after another returned without the glittering medal for nearly 100 years.
Then came four-time Olympian Diaz, putting behind her the failures of London in 2012 — where she no-lifted three attempts at 118kg in the clean and jerk — and the intimidating presence of stoic Chinese world record holder Qiuyun Liao, to end 97 years of waiting for the country’s first Olympic gold.
Now, amazingly just a week after Diaz’s historic feat, Petecio climbs the ring to stake her own claim at a similar prize, with fame and fortune both hers if she wins.
Petecio, along with middleweight Eumir Felix Marcial, had sat up late that fateful evening, shouting themselves hoarse as Diaz lifted the massive 127kg above her head.
For her part, Diaz, in a recent interview, said she has been returning the favor while in quarantine at Sofitel, watching on TV and urging the national boxers on as they contend for medals.
That’s at least one Olympic champion rooting for Petecio as she vies for the gold.
The Davao del Sur native isn’t alone chasing the ultimate Olympic dream.
Her fellow Hidilyn Diaz diehard Marcial is already guaranteed a bronze medal after his knockout victory over Armenia’s Arman Darchinyan in the 69-75kg quarterfinals on August 1, Sunday. But he is up for the silver, as well, in the semifinals against middleweight top seed Oleksandr Khyzhniak of Ukraine at 2:03 p.m. on August 5.
A victory by the Zamboangueno fighter could only mean one thing — a third crack at an Olympic gold for the Philippines.
Flyweight Carlo Paalam, meantime, goes for the bronze in the 48-52kg division against Rio Olympics gold medalist Shakhobidin Zoirov of Uzbekistan at 10:15 a.m.
Paalam will have his hands full against Zoirov, 28, also the champion in the 2019 World Championship at Yekaterinburg in Russia.
Don Abnett, the national team’s Australian training director, doesn’t see Zoirov as invincible though.
Joining the boxers in their stab at glory is athletics’ Ernest John Obiena, who looks to soar past the bar and onto a podium finish in the men’s pole vault final starting 6:20 p.m. Tuesday at the National Olympic Stadium.
A podium landing for Obiena would make him only the third Filipino to win an Olympic medal in athletics (track and field) after Toribio (men’s high jump) and Miguel White (men’s 400-meter hurdles), who won bronzes in the 1932 Los Angeles and 1936 Berlin Olympics, respectively.
Obiena, ranked No. 6 in the world, cleared 5.75 meters in Saturday’s qualifications to book one of 12 spots in the final, joining a tough field composed of world class athletes he is familar with.
Also in athletics, sprinter Kristina Knott bowed out of the women’s 200-meter run Saturday after clocking 23.80, last among five runners in Heat 7 at the National Olympic Stadium.
Twenty four runners advanced to the semifinals — the top three in each of the seven heats plus the next three best times.
Knott finished 37th out of 41 runners in the women’s 200m.
At press time Tuesday, gymnastics pride Carlos Yulo was still competing for a medal in the men’s vault final at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre.
Yulo, 21, fell short in his pet events — floor exercise and parallel bars — in the qualification round of artistic gymnastics but landed among the top 8 in vault to stay in the hunt for an Olympic medal.