In keeping with the Olympic spirit, we take a break from our usual topics and turn to sports, where one can find many interesting connections between Australia and the Philippines.
By the time this column sees print, news of the Olympic triumph of Filipino weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, who gave the country’s very first gold medal, would have spread across the global Filipino community. Diaz lifted not only the Olympic-record total weight of 224 kilos, she also lifted the sagging spirits of the nation still hobbled by a high COVID-19 incidence. A few more Filipino Olympians are vying to duplicate the feat as of this writing.
There are many more potential Hidilyn Diazes out there, future world-beaters waiting to be harnessed and developed, and many of them happen to have connections with Australia.
For example, there is Luke Gebbie, a Melbourne-based swimmer (although online sources describe him as “Fil-Kiwi”) competing in Tokyo for the Philippines. He did not advance to the finals of his events, but the experience will be helpful in raising his performance over time.
Filipinos at the Melbourne, then Sydney Olympics
One of the earliest Philippines-Australia sports connections was the participation of 39 Filipino athletes (35 men and four women) in seven sports at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.
Though the delegation did not win any medals, the experience produced some memorable moments for the athletes. The star-studded basketball team, then bannered by the legendary Carlos “Caloy” Loyzaga, competed well, placing seventh – even ahead of host Australia, which wound up 12th.
Many might remember that Loyzaga established residence in Australia years later, returning to the Philippines only in 2013, three years before he died.
When Sydney hosted the Games in 2000, a more compact team of 20 Filipino athletes in nine sports competed but still failed to win a medal.
Noted Filipino athletes in Australia
In her book Filipino-Australian Pioneers and Achievers, Benjie de Ubago named at least 10 Filipino or part-Filipino athletes who have made a name for themselves in the Australian sports scene in various disciplines (though the majority were in rugby).
The list includes former world number one golfer Jason Day; Grand Slam-caliber tennis player Lizette Cabrera; handball player Bevan Calvert; and the late chess International Master, Arianne Caoili.
Foremost on the list was boxer Dencio Cabanela, Oriental Boxing champion in three weight classes, who fought and tragically died in Melbourne in 1921. He, along with another boxing legend Pancho Villa, blazed the trail for the likes of contemporary icon Manny Pacquiao, the only eight-division champion and shoo-in Hall of Famer.
Pacquiao, interestingly, fought before a sellout crowd in Brisbane – another Australian connection – in 2017 but suffered a controversial loss to then up-and-coming welterweight Jeff Horn.
One can very well add to the list Pampanga-born Josh Culibao, nicknamed “Kuya,” a mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter competing at featherweight.
Kai Sotto in the NBL
The Filipino community in Australia awaits the arrival in Australia of Kai Sotto, a rising star in Philippine basketball. Sotto, all of 7’2” and probably still growing at age 19, has signed up with the Adelaide 36rs in the National Basketball League (NBL) of Australia, the first professional basketball league in the Southern Hemisphere.
NBL Commissioner Jeremy Loeliger and NBL General Manager for Government Relations Tristan Russell broke this news to the Consulate in a meeting last May 20, as they lavishly spoke of “sports diplomacy.”
The league is very bullish about Sotto, and they hope to help the rising star in his quest to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). If things go as planned for Sotto, he will be the first pure Filipino to play in the premier basketball league.
NBL, which has produced Aussie NBA standouts like Ben Simmons, Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills and many others, is also in talks to recruit other up-and-coming players like Kobe Paras, another NBA aspirant, and star of the University of the Philippines (UP) Fighting Maroons.
Fil-Aussies in Philippine basketball leagues
Meantime, there has been a steady stream of Filipino Australians opting to play college basketball in the Philippines, through the Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP), and the rival National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
In recent years, we have seen Australian recruits spice up these leagues, such as Brandon Bates (De La Salle University), James Spencer (UP), Jasper Rentoy (University of the East), James Matthew Laput (DLSU), Jared Abadam (DLSU), Royce Mantua (University of Santo Tomas), and a few others.
Fil-foreigners, as they are called, are highly prized for their height, training, athleticism, and oftentimes, good looks. On the other hand, the young athletes are drawn to the Philippines by generous packages and incentives, the wild popularity of the sport in the Philippines, as well as the chance to play in the big leagues and internationally.
Few might remember that another famous Australian, Steve Watson, started this trend, when he suited up for the Ateneo de Manila University back in the 1970s, and ended up playing in several seasons of the Philippine Basketball Association.
Dual citizenship as driver
One important factor that drives the cross-border movement of athletes is dual citizenship. The Citizenship Retention and Reacquisition Act of 2003 (R.A. 9225) has made it possible for many children of mixed parentage to be recognized as Filipinos.
R.A. 9225 gives former Filipinos who have been naturalised as citizens of other countries, such as Australia, the privilege of retaining or regaining their Philippine citizenship. The benefit extends to their minor children, who are considered derivative Filipino citizens, entitling them to rights and privileges, such as issuance of Philippine passports and eligibility to compete in sports as Filipinos.
Remember too that children born overseas to Filipino parent/s are also citizens of the Philippines. They are dual citizens at birth if the country of birth, like Australia, also recognises them as its citizens. Persons in this category can be issued Philippine passports simply by filing a Report of Birth with the nearest Philippine embassy or consulate.
With dual citizenship, we expect sports connections between the Philippines and Australia to grow and intensify.