Sunday, June 7, 2015


THE RACE IS ON! An inter-scholastic meet hosted by the Pampanga High School features running sprints participated in  by would-be Olympic tracksters from different Central Luzon schools. ca. mid 1920s. Personal Collection.

 The 28th Southeast Asian Games currently going on in Singapore recalls to mind the great feats of many Kapampangans who helped carry the Philippine colors on the world sports arena. Ever since a Negrito named Basilio won the pole-climbing event at the 1904 Anthropology Days Competition—an athletic competition affiliated with the 1904 Summer Olympic Games held in St. Louis, there has been no stopping the Kapampangans’ quest for  victory in the world’s premiere sports competition.

 The country’s official participation in the modern day Olympics began in 1924, when the Philippines sent a token representative, track athlete David Nepomuceno. It was only in 1928 that the country made its presence felt  when Ilocano Teofilo Yldefonso, medalled in breast stroke swimming. 

The first known Kapampangan to participate in the Olympics was Fortunato Yambao (b.16 Oct. 1912/d.23 Jun. 1970), of Sta. Lucia, Masantol, a member of the Philippine basketball team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Adolph Hitler had used this event to prove the superiority of the Aryan race, only to be silenced by stunning victories of black American track star, Jesse Owens. Asia too, had reason to celebrate, for that year, Yambao and his squad lifted the Philippines to 5th place, the highest placement ever achieved by our national basketball team, with a record of 4 wins, 1 loss—against the Americans.

 At the 1960 Rome Olympics, two Kapampangan basketeers were part of the national team: Carlos Velasco Badion of Lubao and Edgardo Luciano Ocampo of Magalang. Carlos or “Charlie” Badion (b. 16 Aug. 1935 /d. 20 Jun. 2002) had actually represented the country at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, with the team finishing strong in 7th place. His teammates included the basketball legend Caloy Loyzaga and Kurt Bachman.

Badion also grabbed Gold at the 1958 Asian Games and took part in the 1959 FIBA World Cup, where the Philippines finished 8th. In his heyday, he originated the so-called “bicycle drive”and “jack-knife lay-up” , basketball moves that young athletes emulated. Badion was named “Mr. Basketball”, appeared in a movie and was crowned as the Most Valuable Player by the Asian Basketball Conference (ABC).

 Equally illustrious was the basketball career of Edgardo “Ed” Ocampo (b. 5 Oct. 1938)/d. 1999), who represented the Philippines in a record 3 Olympics—1960 (Rome), 1968 (Mexico) and 1972 (Munich). The versatile Ocampo was originally a member of the Philippine football team when basketball beckoned. Ocampo was hailed as Asia’s Best Guard, and, like Badion, was voted as “Mr. Basketball” by the Philippine Sports Association.

In 1968, the Philippines sent a token delegation to the gymnastic events of the Mexico Olympics, and one of the 2 gymnasts was Kapampangan Norman Henson, who was our bet in the floor exercise; he had won an international medal for that discipline. While Henson was doing his somersaults, a kabalen, Adolfo Feliciano, was pitting his skills at the shooting range for the last time. The ace sports shooter had previously competed at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics and had medalled at the Asian Games.

Four years later, at the 1972 Munich Olympics, 2 Kapampangans gunned for glory in the same sports: presidential son Arturo Macapagal and Holy Angel student Melchor Yap who joined the skeet-shooting match. Yap and Macapagal did not advance to the finals, but it was enough that they joined the ranks of the world's best deadshots.

On the distaff side, the first Winter Olympics was held in 1924, in Chamonix, France. At two editions---Nagano (1994) and Lillehammer (1998), a skater with Kapampangan blood represented the United States in Ice Dancing. Elizabeth Punsalan (b. 9 Jan. 1971) was the daughter of Dr. Ernesto Punsalan of Lubao and who had come to America as a medical student. Together with partner, Jerrod Swallow, Punsalan qualified for the 1994 Winter Olympics after placing first at the U.S. Nationals. Two weeks before she was set to go to Nagano, her mentally-troubled brother, Ricardo, stabbed their father dead. This affected her performance, and the couple placed 15th overall. Punsalan bounced back in the next Olympics, finishing in a creditable 7th place.

 Another Kapampangan athlete who made it to the Olympics as part of Team America was the badminton ace, Erika Von Heiland (b. 24 Dec. 1965). Born in Angeles City, Erika’s father was Theodore Pamintuan Von Heiland, the son of Paz Sandico Pamintuan with second husband Frank Von Heiland. Her great grandfather was Don Florentino Torres Pamintuan, an affluent citizen of the town and builder of the still-extant Pamintuan mansion. At age 27, Erika qualified in two Olympics in Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996), playing in both singles and the doubles events.

 In the next Olympics in Sydney (2000), another Angeleño marched proud as our country’s bet in the sports of taekwondo. Welterweight Donald Geisler (b. 6 Oct. 1978), of German-American-Filipino descent, had previously won a silver medal at the 1996 Asian Games; he was just 18. After the Olympiad, Geisler continued his winning streak, garnering medals at the regional Southeast Asian Games—a Silver in 2001, and a Gold in 2003. This paved the way for his return to the 2004 Athens Olympics where he reached the quarterfinals. The next year, he struck gold again at the 2005 SEA Games.

 As sportsmen, these select Kapampangan Olympians have lived their ultimate dream of competing for medals against the best athletes of the world. But in their quest for medals, they have come to learn that it not just the winning that matters, but in finding out the best within themselves, a rewarding experience that feels every bit golden.

(7 June 2015)

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