Looking Back

‘The Ilocano Shark’

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“It’s more fun in the Philippines” may be the brainchild of our Department of Tourism, but it is at best a means for public diplomacy, a way for the country to brand and make itself known in the world. It is not just our beaches and historic places that we should advertise at home and abroad, but also who and what we are through our food, our music, our films, etc. Thus, I was rather disappointed that despite Rajo Laurel’s talent and good intentions, our athletes at the opening of the London Olympics looked like waiters or rondalla players in a Filipino restaurant. We sent a small delegation and there are many companies that could have sponsored more appropriate uniforms.

Until the photos of our athletes were published, all we had from Laurel was a rough sketch and his concept as stated in his blog: “My inspiration is the Philippine national costume, our very own barong Tagalog. I believe in its simplicity and elegance. I decided to use the colors black, gold and mocha for the ensemble. The embroidery will feature a modern palay-inspired design with dark cobalt and blue threads symbolizing good fortune. The main accessory is a salakot, which I have gilded in gold leaf and hopefully will catch the light as they enter the Olympic arena.”

Unfortunately, the outfits did not look like something athletes would actually wear. It may have been inspired by good feng shui, but I can imagine the hassle of packing a barong that requires ironing and a golden salakot that won’t fit in a suitcase. The Philippine Olympic Committee should have sponsored a design competition in order to get the best. Designing national uniforms for use in the Olympics is not the same as dressing up a Miss Universe hopeful like a Barbie doll to win the Best in National Costume category. Our Olympians require distinctive sports jackets and track suits, not something they are to wear to a formal occasion or in their coffins.

A uniform for the Olympics may be an insignificant detail to many, but it is one expression of public diplomacy. Our athletes, like our flag, represent the country. Ralph Lauren designed the sleek uniforms of the US team that created a controversy when it was discovered that these were actually made in China! Italian Olympians had matching Giorgio Armani outfits and bags that were the envy of everyone else; the French equestrian team had no less than Hermes. Japan had simple uniforms in red and white—the colors of its flag. Spain’s uniforms also carried the yellow and red of its flag, which some ignoramus described as mustard and ketchup that only needed a hot dog to complete the ensemble. Perhaps our athletes should have worn outfits with the colors of our flag: red, white, blue and yellow. Perhaps they should have worn simple shirts with the seal of the Republic, our flag, or the Philippine map that includes the Spratlys!

Laurel’s barong Tagalog design should have been reserved for our flag bearer, with a separate terno designed for the female athlete who marched beside him. Everyone else should have come in athletic gear or sports jackets. But there’s no use crying over spilt milk now. We have four years to the next Olympics, and if we can’t bring home the gold medals, surely we can at least be remembered for the outfits of our athletes.

I write about athletic uniforms because I recently posted a photograph of Dwight F. Davis (1879-1945) walking to the Malacañang tennis court in a sporty ensemble any Olympian would be proud to wear today. Davis founded the International Lawn Tennis Challenge in 1900. He donated the silver trophy that gave the annual tournament its name, the Davis Cup. Davis was governor-general of the Philippines in 1929-1932.

Closer to home, I wonder if the first Filipino to win an Olympic medal (bronze), Teofilo Yldefonso (1902-1942), would wear the 2012 opening night uniform.

Yldefonso was also known as “The Ilocano Shark” because he was born in a small barrio of Piddig, Ilocos Norte, where he learned to swim in the nearby river. Yldefonso was the first and only Filipino to win a pair of Olympic medals. His great grandson, Daniel Coakley, is also a swimmer who competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

In the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, Yldefonso, then 25, set an Olympic record in the elimination rounds of the men’s 200-meter breaststroke. But in the finals he finished third at two minutes and 56.4 seconds; the gold went to Yoshiyuki Tsuruta of Japan, who clocked in at two minutes and 48.8 seconds. Yldefonso again brought home a bronze from the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in the same event, with an even better time of 2:47.1. He competed in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin to finish in seventh place at 2:51.1.

What has yet to be verified is that Yldefonso was supposed to be the Father of the Modern Breaststroke. His movement was so distinctive that it was studied and copied in Europe, where it was once known as the “Yldefonso stroke.”

Yldefonso saw action in World War II. He survived the Bataan Death March but died in the Capas internment camp with the rank of lieutenant. His remains were never found, but he should be remembered in Philippine sports history together with Pancho Villa, Gabriel “Flash” Elorde, Paeng Nepomuceno, and the present Pambansang Kamao as heroes of a different kind who continue to inspire us to be the best that we can be.

Comments are welcome in my Facebook Fan Page.

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