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Colorful, dramatic: The highs and lows of SEA Games 2019

MANILA, Philippines – From start to finish, the Philippines' hosting of the 2019 Southeast Asian Games was not short of drama.

Controversies, inspiring stories, record-breaking performances, and heart-tugging moments – the SEA Games had it all.

Here are the highs and lows of the 30th edition of the regional meet:

Race against time

The SEA Games did not exactly have a stellar start, owing to the organizers' race against time to complete the renovation of some of the game venues.

Construction workers rushed to finish parts of the Rizal Memorial Stadium and PhilSports Arena a week – and even days – before they hosted key events, including the football and volleyball tournaments.

Who could forget the partially done hall that served as the media center for football? As expected, memes flooded social media as netizens compared it to a stereotype Filipino action movie setting where old warehouses end up as stage for the final battle.

Photo by Beatrice Go/Rappler

Concerns on accommodation and food were also raised not just by delegates from visiting countries but by Filipino athletes as well.

But as the old adage goes, the show must go on.

Grand show

Those early mishaps, though, were momentarily forgotten as soon as the Games officially unfolded with a resplendent opening ceremony at the Philippine Arena.

Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

Filipino athletes of the past and present were celebrated in a show-stopper full of color, music, and world-class performances.

Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

Legends Efren "Bata" Reyes, Paeng Nepomuceno, Lydia de Vega, Eric Buhain, Akiko Thomson, Onyok Velasco, Bong Coo, Alvin Patrimonio took centerstage and carried the Southeast Asian Games Federation flag.

The highlight of the night, of course, was the athletes' parade where the mammoth Philippine contingent revelled in the applause of thousand Filipinos in the stands, including President Rodrigo Duterte.

Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

Duterte sure enjoyed the opening ceremonies as proven by the way he danced and waved his hands to the tune of OPM classic Manila.

Shattered records

Filipino athletes did not just deliver medals at home soil, they also etched their names in history by breaking records.

Kristina Knott. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

Kristina Knott emerged as the region's new sprint queen after clocking a new SEA Games mark in women's 200m, while Olympics-bound EJ Obiena smashed the SEA Games record in men's pole vault.

World records were also set in the inaugural obstacle course racing competition, where the country completed a sweep of the 6 gold medals at stake. (IN PHOTOS: Filipinos smash records at SEA Games 2019)

Kiyomi Watanabe. Photo by PSC-POC Media Group

Meanwhile, Kiyomi Watanabe remained unrivaled with 4 straight gold medals in judo as Gilas Pilipinas' Kiefer Ravena extended his record of most gold medals in SEA Games basketball to 5.

The Philippine Blu Girls also reasserted their mastery of the competition as they cruised to their 10th straight SEA Games gold in softball, capping their campaign with a shutout win over Indonesia.

Breaking through

There were also a lot of firsts for the Philippines in this edition of the biennial meet.

James Deiparine struck his maiden SEA Games gold medal, and in the process, ended the Philippines' 10-year gold medal drought in swimming.

James Deiparine. Photo by Mark R. Cristino/EPA-EFE

Deiparine also smashed a 10-year SEA Games record in the men's 100m breaststroke and reset his own national record. Talk about making history.

Hidilyn Diaz. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

In weighlifting, Olympic silver medalist Hidilyn Diaz came full circle with her first SEA Games gold medal since she started competing in the regional meet in 2005 – the last time the Philippines hosted the regional showpiece.

Christine Hallasgo. Photo by Josh Albelda/Rappler

While there were no surprises that Diaz triumphed, Christine Hallasgo pulled off a stunning upset in athletics as she dethroned Philippine marathon queen and former Olympian Mary Joy Tabal.

To make the victory sweeter, it was just Hallasgo's SEA Games debut and her first full marathon in 2019.

In team sports, the Philippine men's volleyball team made history with a silver-medal finish – its highest since the event was introduced in 1977.

Behind Bryan Bagunas and Marck Espejo, the Philippines dethroned reigning four-time champion Thailand to reach the finals for the first time before succumbing to Indonesia to settle for silver.

Speaking of breakthroughs, esports and 3x3 basketball debuted in the SEA Games, and the Philippines capitalized on their inclusions.

Gilas Pilipinas 3x3 stalwarts (front row, from left) Mo Tautuaa, Jason Perkins, (back row, from left) CJ Perez and Chris Newsome. Photo by Jerrick Reymarc/Rappler

Gilas Pilipinas and Gilas Pilipinas Women ruled the men's and women's divisions of 3x3 basketball, while the country collected 3 gold, 1 silver, and 1 bronze medals in esports.

The Philippines also captured its first gold medal in SEA Games women's 5-on-5 basketballafter decades of falling short of the top prize.

Gilas Women stars (from left) Clare Castro, Janine Pontejos, Jack Danielle Animam, and Afril Bernardino. Photo by Jerrick Reymarc/Rappler

Gold mine

Several events turned out to be gold mines for the Philippines like arnis, the country’s national sport that delivered a staggering 14-gold haul, and dancesports, which returned to the SEA Games for the first time since 2007. (READ: Arnis, 3 other sports account for quarter of PH SEA Games gold haul)

Gayon Mark Jayson (left) and Renigen Mary Joy Guiao. Photo by Mark R. Cristino/EPA-EFE

Filipinos strutted to 10 gold medals in dancesports in Day 1, fueling the Philippines' gold factory that never stopped producing until the final day.

Nesthy Petecio. Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

The country also lorded over boxing, where it won 7 of the 13 gold medals at stake courtesy of Eumir Marcial, Nesthy Petecio, Josie Gabuco, Carlo Paalam, Charly Suarez, James Palicte, and Rogen Ladon.

It was a display of renewed dominance for the Philippines after winning only a combined 7 boxing gold medals in the 2015 and 2017 editions.

Triathlon champions (from left) Fernando Casares, Claire Adorna, Kim Mangrobang, and John Chicano. Photo by Marga Deona/Rappler

The Philippine triathlon team did not disappoint as well with a sweep of all the 3 events behind Kim Mangrobang and John Chicano.

Carlos Yulo, meanwhile, proved worthy of the hype surrounding him as the gymnastics world champion delivered 2 gold and 5 silver medals.

Yulo, who will see action in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, finished the SEA Games as the Philippines' most bemedalled athlete.

Carlos Yulo. Photo by Lisa Marie David/Rappler

In the end, the Philippines emerged as the overall champion in the 11-nation field with an all-time high 149 golds – a massive bounce back effort from its 24-gold medal haul in the 2017 Kuala Lumpur Games. (READ: 'Worth it': Philippines reclaims SEA Games 2019 overall championship)

Beyond the competition

The SEA Games saw how athletes rose through adversity and loss.

Daniela dela Pisa. Photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

Remember Daniela dela Pisa? The 15-year-old, who was dignosed with ovarian cancer when she was just 4, added to the Philippines' haul with a gold medal in the hoop category of rhythmic gymnastics.

She also won two bronze medals in the ball and clubs category.

It was not the same triumphant story, though, for Indonesia's Edgar Marvelo despite bagging back-to-back gold medals in wushu.

Marvelo found out after winning the gold in men's taolu daoshu/gunshu that his father died during his routine. He immediately returned to Indonesia and offered his gold medals to his father.

Roger Casogay. Photo by Mau Victa/Rappler

Another story that touched the hearts of Filipinos was that of surfer Roger Casogay, who helped his Indonesian foe get back to safety after losing his surfboard when his ankle leash broke during their heats.

Casogay was hailed the Fair Play Athlete of the SEA Games and served as the Philippines' flag bearer during the closing ceremonies.

Karateka Jamie Lim, meanwhile, served as an inspiration that athletes can also excel outside their respective sports.

Jamie Lim. Photo by Lisa Marie David/Rappler

Lim, the daughter of PBA legend Samboy, won her first SEA Games gold medal just months after graduating summa cum laude in BS Mathematics from the University of the Philippines Diliman.

What was more impressive was Lim took a break from karatedo for 4 years to focus on her studies before returning to the sport after she graduated.

From changing fields, Kaizen dela Serna thrived in changing sports as the former national gymastics team member copped a gold medal in obstacle course racing.

Cheska and Dino Altomonte. Photo from Instagram/@chesaltomonte

The SEA Games also proved to be a family affair with siblings Cheska and Dino Altomonte winning gold medals in softball and baseball, respectively.

And what better way to celebrate their back-to-back gold-medal triumphs than to dedicate them to their mother.

Despite not winning the gold, tennister Ruben Gonzales offered his love to former racecar driver Michele Bumgarner by proposing to her just moments after receiving his silver medal in men's doubles.

Michele Bumgarner and Ruben Gonzales. Photo by Lisa Marie David/Rappler

As it turned out, Gonzales still ended the SEA Games the biggest winner as Bumgarner accepted his proposal.

Hot issues

Filipinos got a serious case of last song syndrome from Manila, but the same could not be said of presidential daughter Sara Duterte, who slammed the use of the 1970s hit in the opening ceremonies.

The Davao City mayor argued that the song did not represent the entire country.

The issue eventually died down but not without witty Filipinos making memes out of it as they edited videos of the opening ceremonies with the noontime show Eat Bulaga theme song – which has a more inclusive Mula Aparri hanggang Jolo lyrics – and the novelty song Butse Kik.

Agatha Wong. Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

Fast forward to the games, Agatha Wong captured two gold medals in wushu.

However, that did not prevent her critics from invalidating her victory, saying it's natural for Wong to win since she's a Chinese competing in a Chinese martial arts event.

That forced Wong to clear the air, declaring she is a "Filipina more than anything" and would represent the Philippines "wherever I go."

Issues also hounded the Philippine karatedo team, particularly Junna Tsukii, who claimed she was being "bullied" by Turkish coach Okay Arpa.

Junna Tsukii. Photo from Tsukii's Facebook account

sukii, who won a gold in kumite, bared Arpa never congratulated her and told her that she was "dead" to him.

Aside from raking in medals, Yulo piqued the interest of Filipinos when he posted on Twitter that singer-actor Mark Bautista followed him and sent him a congratulatory message on Instagram.

Netizens immediately made insinuations and the 19-year-old gymnastics wunderkind expressed his disappointment with the reactions, clarifiying that Bautista's message was just about "encouragement and appreciation."

On the organizers' side, the Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee (Phisgoc) drew flak after being recognized as the "best SEAG organizer" by the Sports Industry Awards (SPIA) Asia.

Further digging revealed SPIA Asia was endorsed and supported by its own awardee, Phisgoc, as shown in its website.

That did not end there for Phisgoc as its chairman, Alan Peter Cayetano, delivered a lengthy speech during the closing ceremonies that many found irksome due to its political nature.

Filipino camaraderie

Filipinos, though, showed support for the Games and the athletes in many ways.

The Ceres-Negros Football Club lent its buses to all participating football teams to alleviate the logistical issues that earlier troubled the SEA Games.

Local sports fans also trooped to the venues to cheer for Filipino athletes as many took the chance to watch world-class stars like Hidilyn Diaz and Carlos Yulo in action.

Contributed photo

Many stories of volunteers sacrificing and going the extra mile likewise made the rounds as the typically hospitable Filipinos tried to make sure the Games go on with less bumps as possible.

Filipinos also have a heart for underdogs and they showed that by rooting for Timor-Leste to crack the medal tally.

Amorin Imbrolia Araujo dos Reis. Photo from Facebook/2019seagamesph

Enduring 7 days without a podium finish, Timor-Leste finally notched its first medal courtesy of Amorin Imbrolia Araujo dos Reis, who clinched bronze in taekwondo.

Just as much as they were thrilled seeing their compatriots collect medals, Filipinos were delighted that not one of the 11 participating countries in the SEA Games went home empty-handed. –

Delfin Dioquino

Delfin Dioquino dreamt of being a PBA player, but he did not have the skills to make it. So he pursued the next best thing to being an athlete – to write about them. He took up journalism at the University of Santo Tomas and joined Rappler as soon as he graduated in 2017.