MAN OF THE GOLDEN’ HOUR
Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) President Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino shares the struggles and successes of being POC President after the Philippines nabbed four Olympic medals from the Tokyo Olympics 2020.
BY EDWIN GALVEZ
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MANUEL GENEROSO
The country’s massive celebration of Team Philippines’ four-medal finish at the 2020 Tokyo Games—topped by its first-ever gold medal win after a long 97-year drought— still lingers in the air, and Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) President and Cavite Representative Abraham “Bambol” Ng Tolentino has barely taken a rest.
The 57-year-old incumbent representative of the 8th District of Cavite—which encompasses his hometown of Tagaytay City and seven other municipalities south of Manila—immediately buckled down to set the strategies for what promises to be a bigger medal haul for the Philippines in the next Summer Olympics.
“More than one gold is the target,” says Tolentino when asked about the number of golds the country can capture during the quadrennial games in Paris, France in 2024.
Before two-time Olympic medalist Hidilyn Diaz’s gold medal finish in the women’s 55 kilograms weightlifting competition at Tokyo 2020, the Philippines had only won three silver and seven bronze medals since joining in 1924 at the Paris Games.
“Noong tinanong ako d’yan for Tokyo Olympics, sinabi ko (When I was asked about that in relation to the Tokyo Olympics, I said) one is enough and more than one is a blessing,” Tolentino tells LEAGUE at his district office at Tagaytay City Hall.
“When Hidilyn said, ‘Kaya pala natin’ (We can do it, after all), this woke up many ‘sleeping’ athletes as it brought them a new wave of inspiration. With that, yes, more medals are forthcoming,” he says.
Tolentino’s optimism shines more brightly for the Paris-bound delegation as he sees sending more than 20 athletes—which may even reach up to 30—so long as those who competed in Tokyo do not decide to retire.
Called “Bambol” by friends, family and supporters, Tolentino comes off as affable, funny, and lighthearted, which easily make him a very engaging leader. But his ferocious grit and passion have also made the POC the winningest Olympic committee today in its 110-year history.
He made headlines on the day of this interview after he successfully secured funding from Congress for the athletes’ preparation and participation in five major international multi-sport events slated in 2022.
The unparalleled success of Team Philippines—considered the “finest squad” the country has ever assembled—could be attributed to Tolentino’s “hands-on and personalized” leadership of the POC.
“I am leading the POC not as a mere leader and spectator, but I intend to lead with a purpose of giving glory to the country,” he says. “I will not just sit down and watch other countries make fun of us. I will show them that the Philippines is an athletic powerhouse when given good leadership.” In addition to heading the POC, Tolentino was councilor and mayor of Tagaytay City, nine years for each post. He then became congressman in 2013. Today, he is serving his last term in the House of Representatives as one of its 33 deputy speakers.
Tolentino was elected POC president in November 2020, close to a year after the Philippines clinched the overall championship in the 30th Southeast Asian Games (SEAG) that Manila hosted in 2019.
Recognized as the National Olympic Committee of the Philippines by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the privately-run but politically-dominated POC has been beset by leadership squabbles for several years. Its precursor, which existed until 1975, was the Philippine Amateur Athletic Federation.
Today, he leads a unified board where he can simply apply “leadership with a purpose of fulfilling the mandate of the work.”
“We’re united and everything is running smoothly. Kaya ngayon malaki na din ang tiwala ng business sector at ng mga stakeholders (That is why today, the business sector and our stakeholders have confidence in us),” he shares.
Tolentino has been with the POC for a decade now and has accomplished much over the years using his foresight. “The leader must be able to foresee the results ahead of time based on current data,” he explains. “If I see that the National Sports Association (NSA) will not make it even to the qualifiers, I cannot send its team at the people’s expense as the team will spend public money.”
Concurrently the president of the Integrated Cycling Federation of the Philippines or PhilCycling, Tolentino knows which strategies to draw out from his own experiences in various games.
These include the last three Summer Olympics, the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea from which PhilCycling brought home the country’s lone gold medal, and international cycling events he organized in the country.
But the Philippines’ triumphant hosting of the 2019 SEA Games proved to be a sign of better things to come under his leadership.
Assigned as the SEA Games’ sports director, Tolentino singlehandedly designed the sports line-up and build-up of events that made the country clinch the overall championship again since 2005, amassing 147 golds out of a total of 387 medals it won. It was a staggering achievement for the Philippines.
In concrete terms, though, Tolentino believes his “personal touch” has helped boost the confidence and performance of the athletes.
Tolentino confides that Hidilyn, in her fourth straight Olympics, couldn’t be prouder having her whole team around to support her— which other countries do for their athletes as a matter of course. He made it possible because he knew it could be done even with a limited budget.
Tolentino says that he also feels for the athletes “kasi doon ako galing eh,” referring to the time when the NSAs were left to fend for themselves in the past.
His awareness of the sacrifices of both the athletes and officials led him to work hard for their incentives, with some even coming from his own pockets. “Hindi pa nga nagsisimula, sabi ko bibigyan ko kayo ng (Even before the games commenced, I told them I will give them a) house and lot,” he recounts.
Tolentino recalls personally calling top business leaders for their pledges to Olympic medalists even before the Philippine delegation left for Tokyo.
He also says that the POC also helps athletes sort out their troubles when it comes to issues such as filing of liquidation reports, particularly when these athletes are about to compete abroad. He also takes care of the needs of the NSAs, mostly about funding.
Looking For Potentials
In his interactions with the athletes, one sees how Tolentino brings out the best in them and, more importantly, he sees their hidden potentials that only need nurturing. “Totoo kasi ‘pag ‘di mo ginawang ganon, wala (Otherwise, nothing will come out of such). Remember that an athlete’s performance peaks between the ages of 20 and 30 years,” he says.
Driven by sports excellence, Tolentino knows where our athletes can excel in given their physique and innate talents.
He also looks forward to participating in sports debuting at the Paris Games where Filipinos can really shine and win medals. These include ballroom dancing, cheerleading, breakdancing, and e-sports.
The sports development agenda in the country has gained more ground under Tolentino’s leadership as the Tokyo 2020 performance bolstered the need for the scientific training of athletes using modern equipment. He recently sent a request with the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) for such provisions.
He emphasizes that this should also be supported by the construction of a velodrome and a permanent POC office building.
The pandemic “has worsened our training,” he says, as outdoor training is now done indoors. It also does not help that, in a scale of 1 to 10, “our equipment level is at 1.”
“We are burdened with the need for updated training equipment designed for remote monitoring and scientific evaluation, and these are not cheap,” he argues.
He cites that international training coaches can monitor training if we only have the equipment such as power meters and smart trainers. These can send data for analysis by sport scientists so that the correct training regimen can be customized for each athlete.
Tolentino proposed the construction of a velodrome—an indoor arena for training and competing in track cycling events—in Tagaytay City 15 years ago. Its actual cost today is less than Php2 billion.
He says the country misses getting 12 medals because of the standard 12 events in a velodrome, which include team sprint, keirin, sprint, team pursuit, and omnium. He relates that Malaysia would have ended up without any medal in Tokyo were it not been for a velodrome event. A velodrome can even save money for the government, he says, because it can accommodate all kinds of sports, including combat sports, badminton, volleyball and chess. The Philippines, he adds, is the only ASEAN country that has not hosted an Asian or ASEAN cycling championship because it does not have a modern velodrome.
Tolentino is a proud advocate through and through. He fully supports the establishment of the National Academy of Sports (NAS) which is on its first phase as part of honing young athletes coming from the grassroots.
He was also among the sponsors of House Bill 5480 that proposed the establishment of the Philippine Academy for Sports. With its counterpart Senate Bill 1086, it later became the NAS under Republic Act No. 11470 which was signed into law last year.
Housed in New Clark City in Capas, Tarlac, the NAS will implement a “quality and enhanced secondary education program integrated with a special curriculum on sports.”
For athletes to perform better, Tolentino believes the NSAs should also perform well. He sees only about 25 out of 40 to 50 NSAs performing in 2024.
“This is the time to qualify. Go out there, find your races and competitions, and earn those points. With our and the athletes’ sacrifices, plus the cohesiveness and cooperation of the NSAs, it is our destiny to win, and that is what we can offer to the country,” he says.