No limits: Filipino Olympians’ journey during a pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic has halted every sporting event that was set to happen in the past two years, including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Fortunately, the 2020 Summer Olympic Games are due to take place on the rescheduled date of July 23 to August 8 this year. With the delays given to the qualification process coupled with the restrictions in proper training procedures, Tokyo-bound Filipino Olympians Cris Nievarez (rowing) and Kurt Barbosa (taekwondo) share their journey in passing qualifiers, their current training regimen, and their expectations in representing the country this July.

As of writing, Nievarez clocked his best time of 7 minutes and 21.28 seconds but failed to advance in the finals, ranking 23rd overall. Meanwhile, Barbosa ends his Tokyo Olympics stint as top seed Jun Jang of South Korea suffers an upset loss to Tunisia’s Mohamed Khalil in the semifinal.

Essence of qualifying

Qualifying for a spot in the biggest athletic competitive stage is a real challenge. As the lone Filipino representative for rowing, Nievarez faces pressure as he seeks to return prestige for the sport, sharing, “Twenty years na bago magkaroon ngrowing [representative] sa Olympics. Si Benjie [Tolentino] ‘yung last. So, mula nung pagpasok ko po dito, ‘yun na po yung sinabi ng lahat ng mga coaches na kailangan daw talaga na maibalik ulit‘yung rowing sa Olympics.”

(It’s been 20 years since there was a [Philippine] rowing competitor in the Olympics. Benjie Tolentino was the last one. So, since I got here, that’s what the coaches have been telling me, that there is a need to bring back [Philippine] rowing into the Olympics.)

However, the pandemic has posed challenges to the qualifying process as well. Taking into account the hindrances he was faced with, Nievarez shares, “May qualifying kami ng April kaso na-postpone siya gawa nung pandemic tapos na-lockdown ako dito sa Quezon City. Hindi ako makauwi ng probinsya, so ‘yung training ko tuloy-tuloy dito.”

(We had qualifying in April, but it got postponed due to the pandemic and I was on lockdown here in Quezon City. I couldn’t go home to the province, so mytraining here continued.)

It is no doubt a big achievement for any athlete to be chosen and qualified to represent their country in the Olympics—the grandest stage in sports. Barbosa recounts, “‘Yung naka-qualify po talaga ako sobrang thankful ako kay God kasi apat kami nag-qualifying tapos ako yung binigyan niya. ”

(When I was able to qualify, I was really thankful to God because four of us tried to qualify, and I was the one given [a spot.])


Although both have experienced international tournaments, Nievarez and Barbosa are both first-timers when it comes to the Olympics. According to the latter, it was 13 years ago since a Filipino last qualified for the Men’s Taekwondo event in the Olympics, and he could not be any more proud in representing the country. 

Meanwhile, Nievarez shares his expectations on the quality of play he will be going up against. To him, being older in the game has its advantage in the playing field, the 21-year-old SEA Games 2019 gold medalist shares, “Pag-dating kasi sarowing, mas beterano, mas malakas…Ang goal ko talaga dito is makalapit sa mga beterano…” Although he may be one of the youngest in the sport to qualify for the Olympics, Nievarez is excited to do his best come July and show everyone the hard work he has put in.

(When it comes to rowing, the more experienced you are, the stronger you are…My goal is to try to
be near the veterans.)

With both rowing and taekwondo getting more attention in the country, the two hope that the viewers would try watching their respective sports, as it could be seen as enjoyable as those that are regularly televised. “Ang gusto ko lang mangyari is manood lang talaga sila like ‘yun nga kasi pag ‘di sila nanunuod [ng live], ‘di talaga nila malalaman like ‘pag nanood lang sila sa TV or sa cellphone. Sa personal kasi iba yung [feeling], parang ikaw din ‘yung kinakabahan,” Barbosa explains. 

(I want them (Filipinos) to watch it because they would not know the feeling if they would just watch it on TV or on the cellphone. In person, you feel as if you are the one getting nervous.)

To represent the Philippines in the Olympics is a huge dream for many Filipino athletes. It takes courage to represent the country knowing that their lives could be endangered due to the pandemic. These brave athletes would do anything to make the nation proud—whatever the cost. 

Nievarez and Barbosa are just two of the 19 Filipino athletes, as of writing, who will don the colors of the nation in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. If there is anything that these Olympians would do, it would be to give their all. “Asahan niyo po na magpapakita kami ng magandang performance sa darating na Olympics at suportahan niyo po ang lahat ng atletang sasabak sa Olympics,” Nievarez assures.

(Expect that we will show a good performance in the coming Olympics and support all the Filipino athletes that will compete.)

NOTE: August 3, 2021

The article was updated to reflect the progress of the 2020 Olympics.

By Drew Beltran Acierto

By Koby del Rosario

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