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9 Little-Known Filipino Olympian Facts, From Our First Gold Medalist To Our First Winter Athletes

Little-known facts about Filipino Olympians

It’s no joke to compete at the most prestigious sporting event in the world, as shown by the huge celebration surrounding our first-ever gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz, who took the much-awaited medal after almost a century of waiting. But before Diaz’s win, many athletes who came before her are also worth remembering for the honor and sacrifices they have brought for the country, despite not making it big at the historied games.

From our first unofficial gold medalist to our first winter Olympians, here are 9 little-known Filipino Olympians facts that you should read more about.

1. Arianne Cerdeña is our first unofficial Olympic gold medalist

Filipino Olympics Athletes - Arianne Cerdena
Image credit: westnyacktwins

Before a Filipina weightlifter captured our first-ever gold, another Filipina, in the name of Arianne Cerdeña, also made history as the first Olympic gold medalist from the Philippines, albeit for a demonstration sport. At the women’s bowling finals of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Cerdeña won against Japan’s Atsuko Asai with a 249-211 score. 

Even though her win wasn’t part of the official Olympics tally, her feat is still well-deserving of all recognition given that she bagged our first gold about 60 years since our country had first sent athletes to the games. Aptly, her name will forever be enshrined on the Philippine Sports Hall of Fame.

2. Sprinter David Nepomuceno was our first-ever Olympian in our first Olympics at the 1924 Paris games

Filipino Olympics Athletes - David Nepomuceno
David Nepomuceno (right)
Image credit: Pinoy Athletics

Our country entered the Olympics for the first time through sprinter David Nepomuceno, who was also our sole competitor at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

He raced in the 100 and 200m events, finishing sixth at the 100m and third at the 200m event.

3. Swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso, our first Filipino Olympic medalist, was named The Father of Modern Breaststroke

Filipino Olympics Athletes -Teofilo Yldefonso
Image credit: Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons

The first Filipino to win an Olympic medal is swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso, who bagged the bronze medals in the 200m breaststroke events of the 1928 and 1932 games in Amsterdam and Los Angeles respectively. Aside from bringing honor to our country, he also was well regarded by his contemporaries as he was named “The Father of the Modern Breaststroke” for developing how the breaststroke was swum – from under the water as was common during his time to the surface of the water.

But while he was a champion of the waters, he was not immune from the unfateful circumstances of his days. He served as a lieutenant during World War II and survived the Bataan Death March in 1942, but he was said to have died in a concentration camp in Capas due to the effects of an injury he sustained from shrapnel.

4. High jumper Simeon Toribio, bronze medalist at the 1932 Olympics, was once named Asia’s Greatest Athlete

Filipino Olympics Athletes -Simeon Toribio
Canada’s Daniel McNaughton (left), Simeon Toribio (middle), and United States’ Bob Van Osdel
Image credit: LA84 Foundation/Hurdler 49

Aside from Yldefenso, high jumper Simeon Toribio also brought home a bronze medal for the Philippines from the 1932 Los Angeles games. He was a star jumper, having won five gold medals at the Far Eastern Games that would later become today’s Asian Games. He was also given the distinction of Asia’s Greatest Athlete in 1930.

After his feat in sports, the political podium would soon become his stage. He became a lawyer and Congressional representative for the province of Bohol in the Parliament of the Philippines from 1941-1953. During the second world war, Toribio was almost arrested by the Japanese military police, but was released after an officer spotted his souvenir from one of his competitions in Japan.

5. Hurdler Miguel White, bronze medalist at the 1936 Olympics, was killed during the Japanese invasion in the Philippines

Filipino Olympics Athletes - Miguel White
Miguel White (left) and United States’ Glenn Hardin (right)
Image credit: LA84 Foundation/Hurdler49

Filipino-American Miguel White won a bronze at the 1936 Berlin Olympics after competing at the 400m hurdles of the athletics event.

He became a lieutenant of the Philippine Army after the 1936 Olympics, but like Yldefonso, he fell into the hands of the Japanese as he was said to have been killed in action during the initial landing of Japanese forces on Philippine shores.

6. When the games hosted an art competition in 1948, painter Hernando Ocampo and sculptor Graciano Nepomuceno were our bets

Filipino Olympics Athletes - Art Competitions Olympics
Judges evaluating works of art submitted for the 1936 Berlin games 
Image credit: Mutual Art

There was a time when art was also part of the Olympics. From 1912-1948, architecture, painting, sculpture, literature, and music were the categories of the art competitions.

Filipino Olympic Athletes - HR Ocampo
Ocampo’s Hat Weavers, 1945
Image credit: Artnet

Painter Hernando Ruiz Ocampo, best known for his abstract works, as well as sculptor Graciano T. Nepomuceno, a classical sculptor, represented the Philippines at the 1948 London Olympics.

Filipino Olympic Athletes - Graciano Nepomuceno
Nepomuceno’s Jose Rizal sculpture
Image credit: Lakbay ng Lakan

7. Two alpine skiers represented us during our first Winter Olympic Games in 1972

Filipino Olympic Athletes - 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics
Alpine Skiing games at the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics
Image credit: Olympics 

Our tropical country first sent a delegation to the Winter Olympics when cousins Juan Cipriano and Ben Nanasca competed as alpine skiers at the 1972 Winter Olympics held in Sapporo, Japan.

They got to hone their skills for the winter sports after they had been adopted as teenagers by a family from New Zealand, as Nanasca recounted in an interview with New Zealand news media website Stuff. The cousins spent their days skiing in several countries in Europe, such as Switzerland where the Swiss government scouted them and sponsored their training.

8. We have also sent figure skaters, equestrians, fencers, and wrestlers to the games

Filipino Olympic Athletes - Denise Cojuangco
Image credit: visimpdig

Athletics, boxing, swimming, and weightlifting are some of the competitions where most Filipino Olympians have joined in. But our very own athletes have also competed in sports that were little-known locally when it comes to the games, such as ice-skating, equestrian sports, fencing, and wrestling. Michael Martinez became the first figure skater from the country when he sashayed at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, while equestrienne Denise Yabut-Cojuangco performed his horseback riding skills in the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics.

In fencing, Percival Alger was our first representative after he joined the 1988 Summer Olympics. Wrestling isn’t so popular these days, but it was during the 20th century when a total of 14 Filipino wrestlers bore our flag.

9. Filipina athletes represented the country for the first time in the Olympics during the 1956 games in Melbourne

Filipino Olympic Athletes - first Filipina Olympians
Image credit: Mekeniman

It had taken a while before Filipina athletes’ names became a part of the games, but after about 30 years, we finally saw women making it to the Olympics.

Four women – hurdlers Manolita Cinco and Francisca Sanopal and swimmers Gertrudez Lozada and Jocelyn Von Giese – wore the Philippine flag for the first time at the 1956 Melbourne games in Australia.

Filipino Olympians at the Olympics

The achievements of many Olympians before Diaz are indeed worth remembering in light of our recent victory.

May we remember their names – from Cerdeña to Yldefonso to our first Filipina Olympians – who have also shown the world the capabilities of the Filipino body, mind, and spirit in all the ways they can.

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Cover image adapted from: Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons, westnyacktwins, and LA84 Foundation/Hurdler 49