Honoring Arianne Cerdeña, the First Filipino Olympic Gold Medal Winner

For a demonstration sport.

The nation is still reeling from the remarkable achievement of Hidilyn Diaz. The 30-year-old weightlifter ended nearly a century of waiting for the Philippines to win an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo earlier this week. It’s an amazing feat that will be remembered for generations to come. 

But what became quite clear is that many people aren’t aware of the first Filipino to ever win a gold medal in the Olympics. Her name is Arianne Cerdeña and she won it for the country during the Summer Games held in Seoul, South Korea in 1988. 

Unfortunately, the sport she competed in—bowling—was not part of the standard medal competition at the Games that year and so her win does not count in the official records of the Olympics. Still, no one should ever question her achievement and people should recognize just how much honor and pride she has brought to the country.

Who is Arianne Cerdeña

Cerdeña was born on March 11, 1962. She was a passionate bowler growing up, so much so that, at age 19, she became part of the Philippine national bowling team at the 1981 Southeast Asian Games held in Manila. It was the beginning of a string of wins and podium finishes in various international tournaments, including the World Championships, the Asian Games, the World Games, and the Bowling World Cup. 

But it was her stint at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul that would forever cement her legacy in the annals of sporting history in the Philippines.

Photo by YouTube / westnyacktwins.

Bowling had been included as a demonstration sport at that year’s Olympics. Host countries typically included at least one demonstration event at the Games to up its profile and hopefully get it included in the regular roster of official events. In bowling's case, it was first played as an exhibition event in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. 

In the finals of the women’s bowling event, the then-26-year-old Cerdeña went up against fortysomething Atsuko Asai of Japan. Asai had actually defeated Cerdeña during their initial encounter 197-180, but it didn’t deter the Filipino from pushing on and eyeing the win. 

In the finals, Cerdeña went toe-to-toe with her opponent and had even managed to make seven simultaneous strikes. Although Asai had been leading in the first half of the game, the Filipino clinched the win with a final score of 249-211.

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As Spin noted in its story about Cerdeña, it was because of her win that the Philippine National Anthem was played for the first time ever at an Olympics awarding ceremony.

Cerdeña went on to compete in several more international meets after that, but it was after she won the gold at a doubles event at the 2001 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur that she finally decided to retire.

Soon after, she joined her husband in the U.S., where they have been living ever since. Cerdeña, who took up dentistry in college, eventually went back to school and became a nurse at the Medical Surgery Unit of the California Medical Center. She is now even more of a hero as she is a frontliner in the battle against COVID-19.

In March this year, Cerdeña was inducted into the Philippine Sports Hall of Fame, taking her place as one of the Philippines’ true sports icons.  

Watch a report about bowling as a demostration sport and Cerdeña's win here:

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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