By Alex P. Vidal
“For a time, at least, I was the most famous person in the entire world.”
I WAS high school student when I started to seriously fall in love with three sports—chess, boxing, running (marathon and track and field); I did not just fancy these disciplines, I played them all, modesty aside.
The major world sports events I could still vividly remember then were: the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics (the Soviet Union retaliated by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics), Andrei Sokolov’s crowning as world junior chess king in Copenhagen in 1982, Rolando Navarette’s upset 5th round KO win against Uganda’s Cornelius Boza Edwards to pocket the WBC junior lightweight championship in Italy in 1981, and Lydia “Diay” de Vega-Mercado’s gold in the 100-meter dash in the 1982 New Delhi Asian Games.
Let’s skip the USA-USSR Olympics tit for tat, Sokolov (I remember him only because Baguio City hosted the 1987 edition won by India’s Viswanathan Anand and, mea culpa, I thought he would show up. I realized Sokolov was not anymore qualified because he was already more than 21), and Navarette.
Let’s focus on Lydia de Vega-Mercado, who died of breast cancer at 57 on August 10.
There was one particular moment where I became interested on Diay and this was when she really made headlines literally in the 1982 New Delhi Asian Games.
Like many Filipinos who monitored and chronicled the Games at that time, I was awestruck.
P.T. Usha, older by one year to Lydia, 17, was India’s national heroine.
Of the 4,595 athletes from 33 Asian countries, Usha, 18, known as the “Golden Girl” and stood five feet and seven inches, was so popular she was picked to administer the 1982 Asian Games’ Athlete’s Oath. She became instant celebrity.
Everywhere she went, Usha attracted the fans’ attention, according to the journals I read and collected at that time.
Usha was the fastest woman in India and penciled to dominate the 100-meter and 200-meter in the distaff side of the track and field competition, having won multiple medals at the 1979 National Games and 1980 National inter-state meet setting many meet records.
Usha was also the star of the show at the senior inter-state meet in Bangalore in 1981, where she clocked 11.8 seconds in the 100-m and 24.6 seconds in the 200-m setting national records in both.
What made the story so interesting was Usha was touted as the equivalent of the highly regarded long jumper Luz Long, Adolf Hitler’s most prized athlete in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.
When the talented American Jesse Owens repulsed Long, Hitler was very angry and devastated. He was reportedly fuming mad when he left the stadium as Germany failed to prove the Aryan race’s supremacy as he had boasted.
Usha was Indian President Zail Singh’s best bet and the Games’ poster girl. As hosts, the Indians pinned their hopes on Usha and were confident she would bring home the coveted gold in the two major events (100-m and 200-m).
To make the long story short, the sprinter from Meycauayan, Bulacan, coached by her father known to many of us then only as “Tatang”, dashed to pieces the hopes of President Singh, who didn’t react like Hitler, and the Indians when she upset Usha in the 100-meter dash, clocking 11.76 to Usha’s 11.95. South Korea’s Mo Myung-hee finished third 11.99 for the bronze.
Lydia’s thumping of Usha grabbed headlines in most newspapers in Asia the following morning, as it heralded the emergence of the new “fastest woman in Asia” from the Philippines.
It was one of the only two golds won by the Philippines in the Games. Swimmer William Wilson secured the other gold in the men’s 200-meter freestyle. Boxing, swimming, and sailing pumped three silver medals even as the Philippines got another 9 bronze medals in cycling, equestrian, athletics, and shooting for a total of 14 medals, good for 10th place behind China (61-51-41 gold, silver bronze), Japan (57-52-44), South Korea (28-28-37), North Korean (17-19-20), India (13-19-25), Indonesia (4-4-7), Iran (4-4-4), Pakistan (3-3-5), and Mongolia (3-3-1).
Although Lydia didn’t fare well when she qualified for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (her very best was “good only” for Asia), she became an icon and role model for the young Filipino athletes who wanted to follow what she had reached and achieved in the world of sport. Paalam, Diay.
For a time, at least, to paraphrase Jesse Owens, you were the most famous person in the Asian Games.
Thank you for making the Filipinos proud and for your great contributions in the Philippine sports.
(The author, who is now based in New York City, used to be the editor of two local dailies in Iloilo.—Ed)