Olympic Stories: The Early Medalists

Whenever you decide to assess the achievements of our athletes in various sports disciplines, whether amateur or professional, it is incumbent to include the roster of athletes who have won medals in the pinnacle of athletic competition - the Olympic Games.
The first Filipino Olympic medal was won by swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso, who finished third in the 200 meters backstroke at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Yldefonso was nicknamed the “Ilocano Shark” since he was a native of the remote town of Piddig, Ilocos Norte. As a kid Yldefonso used to swim like many others in the two rivers that flanked the town – the Dingris and Guisit rivers which at that time had clean, deep waters.

Yldefonso was born on November 11, 1902 and was 26 years old when he first competed in the Olympics, finishing third in the heats, semifinals and finals turning in his best time of 2:53.2 in the semis. Yldefonso finished behind Japan’s Yoshiyuki Tsurata who won the gold with Germany’s Erich Rademacher grabbing the silver.

Four years later at the Los Angeles Olympic Games, Yldefonso duplicated the feat by winning another bronze medal and had the misfortune of again contending  with Japanese ace Tsurata who won the gold and effectively pulled his countryman Reizo Koike who edged Yldefonso for the silver medal.

Yldefonso’s times showed a marked improvement in Los Angeles where he won his heat, finished second in the semifinals with a time of 2:48.4 and third in the finals turning in a time of 2:47.1. He competed in the Berlin Olympics of 1936 for the last time but after breaking the record in the heats he managed to finish only 7th in the finals.

During World War II Yldefonso, a Lieutenant fought against the Japanese in the historic battle of Bataan and although he survived the infamous Death March, Yldefonso died at the Capas Concentration Camp. His remains were never recovered. A monument was erected in honor of the Ilocano war hero and legendary swimmer and was unveiled in his hometown of Piddig in February 2006.

The Philippines had its most successful Olympics to date in terms of medals, winning three bronzes in Los Angeles where there were those who believed that the Filipinos were at home in the climate that approximated that of Manila, which partially accounted for their success.

Simeon Toribio led the charge in athletics when he won the bronze medal in the high jump in his second of three stints in the Olympics, having first competed in the 1928 Olympics where he narrowly failed to win the bronze medal. Benjamin Hedges of the US and Claude Menard of France, who along with Toribio cleared the bar at 1.91 meters, had less attempts than the Filipino and narrowly edged Toribio for the silver and bronze medals with Bob King of the US winning the gold with a height of 1.94 meters.

In a interesting insight into Toribio’s misfortunes in the 1932 Games, author Jorge Afable said that Toribio could have won the gold medal, if he wasn’t bothered by a "call of nature" during a crucial stage of the high jump competition which lasted for a grueling four hours. Afable recalled that the bar had been raised to 6’ 6” and Toribio who once made the jump, failed to overcome it the second time because he was distressed by his need to answer a call of nature.

In 1930,  Toribio was honored as Asia’s greatest athlete and was awarded the Helms World Trophy athlete some two years prior to his success in the Los Angeles Olympics.  He was adjudged Asia’s best athlete after winning gold medals in the high jump event at what was regarded as the Far Eastern Olympics in 1921, 1923, 1927 and 1930.

A bright young man, Toribio studied at Silliman University adnbecame a lawyer. In 1941 he was elected congressman from the second district of the picturesque province of Bohol where he had settled down. Toribio served in the House of Representatives until 1953.

(Editor’s note: As a build-up to the London Olympic Games Yahoo! Sports Philippines is featuring stories and interviews of past Filipino Olympians. Check back here regularly for updates.)


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