He was the first Filipino Winter Olympian since 1992. He was the first Southeast Asian Olympic figure skater, let alone the first Filipino Olympic figure skater. He barely had enough money to get himself to Sochi, never mind the funds needed to train at home and abroad, lodging and food while abroad and the elaborate costumes that are just as important as the choice of music in competition.
But the Philippines’ Michael Christian Martinez soldiered on, eventually finishing 19th out of 30 skaters in Men’s Figure Skating at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
It is a big accomplishment for any Filipino to make it to the Olympic Games. Even bigger when it’s a Winter Olympics considering the coldest temperature you could ever feel in the Philippines would be considered a hot day in most of the competing Winter Olympic countries.
Being the first Filipino and first Southeast Asian Olympic figure skater makes Michael’s achievement that much bigger. And actually moving on to the next round of the competition solidifies Michael’s first Olympics as a resounding success.
I’ve been watching the Olympics for as long as I can remember. I may not be the best athlete myself, which is probably why I enjoy watching real athletes much more. That includes figure skating.
And I may have watched Olympic figure skating all the way back to the 90s, but I couldn’t tell you the difference between a triple axel and Axl Rose. (Pardon that attempt at being witty.)
You could call me a casual fan. I admire any athlete, especially when I wish I was half as good an athlete as they are. But when I watch figure skating, I’m just as confused as to why a skater that’s fallen on their butts twice gets a higher score than someone who seems to have had a much cleaner skate. It took me a while to understand how that madness is even possible.
So when I watch a figure skating routine, I’ll think it looks nice, the jumps and spins are cool and the flashy, flamboyant, sequined costumes an interestingly fun contrast to the other Winter Olympic sports.
But finding out Michael Martinez made the Olympics and in figure skating got me a little more interested in the sport. Even before Michael’s story of lack of training and resources, I’ve watched enough of those slick, fancy NBC Olympics packages that show what these skaters go through to get to the Games. The lack of government support will likely dominate the discussion in the coming weeks. But let’s just forget about that right now and just thank SM Development Corporation and Manny V. Pangilinan’s MVP Sports Foundation for chipping in some cash.
Instead, think about this. A Filipino kid, not some Filipino-American, a Filipino teen who was actually born and raised in the Philippines to have been able to qualify for the Olympics is amazing to me. I love an underdog. And an underdog representing the Philippines? I’m all over that.
Even though going into the Games, there wasn’t a real expectation that he’d medal. Just making the Olympics and getting to skate alongside legends like Evgeni Plushenko or his idols Patrick Chan and Yuzuru Hanyu who he watched on YouTube to teach himself how to skate was already an achievement he should be more than proud of.
But then he qualified for the Free Skate. He exceeded his own expectations. A kid from a tropical country who was good enough to be included as one of the 30 best skaters in the world now bested 10 other skaters and was ranked 19th going into the medal round of the men’s competition.
He may not have been ready or even expected to be skating a Long Program at the Olympics. But he was. And he did.
This young 17-year-old Filipino with nowhere near the level of training or financial support his fellow competitors enjoyed was able to take part in the medal round and finish 19th on his first trip to the Olympic Games.
That’s the kind of story not even NBC could piece together. And it’s a story that is undoubtedly shared by many other athletes in Sochi this month. They may not get the glossy NBC primetime package, but their experience, their accomplishment and achievement of getting to walk into the Olympic Stadium to represent their home country is what the Olympics is all about.
Television can give us great stories. And sometimes those stories are not scripted or edited together. The true, real-life stories of people are sometimes the most intriguing and affecting.
At these Olympic Games, one of those stories was Michael’s. The world got to see what is possibly the start of a great career.
Michael’s novelty as the only Winter Olympian and first in 22 years from the Philippines, a tropical country recently ravaged by a typhoon and the country whose flag is tattooed on U.S. speed skating star JR Celski’s chest might have been what caused people to maybe take a second look at him. But it was his performance on the ice that got many people to take that third and fourth look.
He received great praise by commentators around the world, including the BBC. Chris Howarth and Belinda Noonan of the official Olympic broadcast gave sincerely enthusiastic commentary during his routines and gave glowing endorsements.
NBC broadcast the entire five hours of competition live each day on NBC Sports Network with veteran sportscaster Terry Gannon and Olympians Johnny Weir and champion Tara Lipinski.
They too liked what they saw in Michael and expressed as much. And that’s definitely something because Johnny and Tara especially did not hold back on the snark and shade with some of the other bottom-half skaters.
During both the Short Program and Free Skate, they commented on Michael’s “natural beauty” and technical ability. Tara said he was the “one skater that caught [her] eye” and they should keep an eye out for him, he just needs more “polish” and “refinement” which comes with time and experience.
After the Free Skate, Johnny Weir: “Definitely a shining star for the future and only 17, competing in your first Olympics, it’s gotta be so mind-boggling and daunting, but great technique on the jumps. And just really needs polish and I think that he’ll be right up there. Plus of course the quad.”
Instead of going to commercial, which NBC Sports Network did most of the time in between the end of the routines and before the announcement of scores, they stuck with the official Olympic feed which shows the highlights of the just completed performance and talked about the ins and outs of Michael’s.
Terry Gannon then mentions that 1998 Olympic champion (and former coach of Michael’s) Ilia Kulik “told Scott Hamilton and a few others that [Michael] could be a future Olympic champ.”
“Well I do too,” Tara adds.
Inspiring his fellow countrymen and gaining new fans around the world, Michael Christian Martinez is a perfect example of what athletics and the Olympics can be about. Yes, there’s the thrill and excitement of competition. But though his success at the Olympics, Michael displayed maturity, strength, determination, courage and the power of the human spirit. Qualities that deserve much more praise and attention than the superficiality and sensationalism that overpower Filipino entertainment and politics.
The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi was a historic one for the Philippines and the Filipino people. But more importantly, it was likely the start of the rest of Michael Christian Martinez’s life. It really was great fun and exciting to watch him compete and perform at the Olympics. And it seems pretty universal that this won’t be the last we’ll see or hear from him. #RoadtoPyeongchang it is!