Remembering Mona Sulaiman and Nancy Navalta, in the Wake of the Aprilia Manganang Controversy

We were never good at questioning athletes' sex.

The Philippines finished 19th out of 45 countries at the recently concluded 2018 Asian games. After sending 272 athletes to compete for 16 days in a total of 31 sporting events, our national teams were awarded with four gold, two silver, and 15 bronze medals. Those four golds were won by women while 70% of the country's entire medal count were won by women. 

Women reigned during this season of the Asian Games, and not just in the Philippines. One woman— Aprilia Manganang from Indonesia—singularly scored 30 points in the volleyball game that knocked the Philippines out of the running.

Chalk it up to the negative side of the #PinoyPride reflex, but disgrunted Filipinos took their sore-loser grievances to the Internet, with many speculating that Manganang couldn't possibly be a woman, because of her physique.

This is not the first time Manganang has had to face down these allegations. Back during the 2015 SEA Games, the Philippine team even requested for Manganang to take a physical exam to prove her sex. Organizers rejected this request after reviewing the documents submitted by the Indonesian team. Manganang herself said that she wasn't afraid of taking the test. "I am ready. I am also not in the wrong—whatever I have is given from above."

It wasn't too long ago that our own athletes were embroiled in the same kind of controversy. In at least two high-profile cases, two Filipina track and field stars had to face questions about their sex, and in the difficult decades when the world was still getting used to the idea that there may be other sexes and genders other than male or female.

Mona Sulaiman, The Fastest Woman of the Early ‘60s

Before Lydia de Vega conquered the world of track, there was Mona Sulaiman.

Born on June 9, 1942, Mona was the eldest of five children to Kudelat and Aminan Sulaiman. Growing up, Mona found an affinity for all kinds of sports. One account mentions that one of her earliest sports was softball, which she played in the fifth grade at the age of 15. In one of her games, an official from the Bureau of Public Schools watched the young Mona run from base to base. This official was awed by Mona’s speed that they brought a local coach to test her skills. Impressed by Mona's speed, they encouraged her to shift her forcus to to running. Another story recounted that she was competing in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints when she was just seven years old. Whatever it was, she was obviously and actually a natural at running.

She eventually competed in the National Scholastic meet in Lingayen, Pangasinan where a coach from the Far Eastern University saw her. She enrolled in the school's management program and competed for the varsity team. After intense coaching, Mona set the national record for the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint in a little over 11 seconds and 24 seconds, accordingly.

With her natural talent and abilities, Mona was able to represent the country in the Olympics twice–in 1960 in Rome and in 1964 in Tokyo. For the 1960 Olympics, the 18-year-old competed in the 100-meter and 200-meter dash and she made it to the quarter finals of the former.


In 1962, she bettered herself in the Asian Games held in Jakarta where she won gold medals for the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and the 4x100 meter relay. This feat made her the first Asian to win double golds in sprints and the first Filipina to bag three gold medals in a single year at the Asian games. On top of everything, she also won a bronze medal for the shotput event. In 1965, she set a new national record, throwing the shotput 13.6 meters—a record that stood for five years.

Her performances in these games earned her the nicknames “The Fastest Woman” and “Asia’s Sprint Queen.” Mona's race to the top came to an abrupt stop in 1966, however.

Mona qualified for the national team that year, but dropped out of competition because she refused to take a physical test that would prove her sex. In one version of the story, Mona refused because of her Islamic beliefs. Other explanations mentioned that Mona was sick, and the test was spread by malicious camps who were bitter over her victories.

But the damage was done. There was no shaking off the rumors. Mona also allegedly received threats against her personal security. Instead, she deliberately stepped away from the spotlight and lived a quiet life working in the public sector instead. A reported accident in the '80s also ruined her chances of running again. She returned to the sports scene in the '90s when she was tapped by the Philippine Sports Commission to serve as a consultant tasked with monitoring the performances of national track and field runners.

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She was inducted to the Philippine Sports Hall of Fame in 2016. Around the same time, she had also begun to use a wheelchair. Some reports also stated that she was suffering from diabetes. And finally, on December 21, 2017, Mona reached the finish line of life.

Nancy Navalta: Competing as a man and woman

Three decades after Mona’s controversy, another athlete’s true sex was questioned. This time, it was Nancy Navalta at the center of the media frenzy.

Nancy made headlines in 1993 when she competed at the Palarong Pambansa in Isabela, where she won both the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes. The 17-year-old Filipina sprinter from La Union who had no official training threw off the sports officials. Was it beginner’s luck? The next year, she won six more gold medals. People began calling her the “next Lydia de Vega,” referring to the great female runner who won gold in the 1982 and 1986 Asian Games.

In 1995, Nancy’s records and victories were questioned. People pointed out that she was flat-chested and that she had a mustache. She was required to take a physical exam, similar to the one Mona was rumored to have been asked to take. That she Competed in both men’s and women’s categories in a sports meet in Pangasinan compounded the rumors. At that event, she won the women’s 100 and 200-meter sprints and she also placed 4th in the men’s division. In fact, her best time of 11.42 seconds in the 100-meter sprint earned her a spot in the Philippine delegation to the Atlanta Olympics.

When the Philippine Center for Sports Medicine released her test results, it was revealed that she had a condition called hermaphrodism—this means that Nancy had both female and male organs. Without clear-cut rules to determine how she could compete, this meant the end of her Olympic dream.

Despite the test results, Nancy insisted she was a woman. The media, in the meantime, was brutal and talked about private aspects of her life. Nancy decided to return to her hometown and finish a degree in Criminology at the University of Luzon. There are reports stating that she is working as a coach in La Union and Pangasinan. In 2004, Maalaala Mo Kaya episode dedicated an to her life.

Whatever the truth is about these gifted athletes, one must never forget that once upon a time, they bestowed glory to a country that appreciated their talents a little too late.


ASIAN GAMES: Philippines finishes 19th out of 45 nation

Pinay athletes deliver 70% of PH medal haul

Gender test rejected for Indonesia's Manganang

A Gender Bender in the Philippines

Mona Sulaiman, Asia's fastest woman of early '60s, dies at 75

Mona Sulaiman, Bio and Stats

Mona Sulaiman

Mona Sulaiman in Asian Games

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Nicai de Guzman
Nicai de Guzman is the Head of Marketing of Rising Tide, one of the fastest-growing mobile and digital advertising technology companies in the Philippines. She also writes for and
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