Winter Games in a Tropical Country: The Reasons Filipinos Grew to Love Ice Skating

Words by Oriana Cuenca

Featured Image: Jizelle Chloe Bacani, figure skater, Silver – Philippine National Championship

Filipinos are a curious people. We will try anything once, and the snaking lines at every new restaurant launch is proof of that. Filipinos have adopted food, cultures, trends, and sports from all over the world, and often times we find a way to make it our own. The Philippines’ favorite sport, boxing, is by no measures a native competition, but the Philippines has excelled in it nonetheless.

There is one particular sport that’s a stretch for even the curious Filipinos: Ice Skating. This is a sport that, just a few years prior, would have been absolutely impossible to hold in the sweltering tropical islands of the Philippines. The locals took to ice and started gliding in no time, so what did it take to get a country of pacific islanders to adopt the most alien sport possible? It took a dream, an inspiration, and a local touch.

One Man’s Dream

Before the official Olympic ice skating rinks were built, the closest Filipinos have ever come to the experience of ice skating was through rollerblading. Roller skates had a set of wheels underneath the shoe that allowed the wearers to glide on smooth surfaces. While there were “rinks” for it too, rollerblading could be done anywhere with the right equipment. While it was similar, rollerblading lacked the chill of the rink, the elegance of the skaters, and the complexity of the movements that ice skating had.

Creating an ice skating rink in a country with the least ideal climate takes a large investment, and who better to make it than one of the country’s richest men. Henry Sy Sr., the former patriarch of one of the Philippine’s wealthiest families, had dreamed of giving Filipinos the chance to experience ice skating. When he built the first ice skating rinks in the Philippines, he didn’t plan on turning ice skating into a national pass time. Sy Sr. hoped a Philippine Olympian for figure skating would emerge, and he built facilities to match that grand ambition.

Unlikely inspiration

Screenshot 2019 10 29 All sizes Ice Skating in Manila Flickr Photo Sharing

After the rinks were constructed, Filipinos started to take their first curious steps onto the ice. The skating community started to form in the early 2000s, but most of the visitors in the rink were curious passersby. Ice skating was far from popular.

The sport was put into the spotlight when Michael Christian Martinez became the first skater from South-East Asia to qualify for the Winter Olympics in 2013. As the country’s flag-bearer for the Sochi Olympics, Martinez’s popularity sparked a sudden interest in ice skating. People who had never heard of the sport started flocking to the rinks. The Olympiad’s success made him more than a champion of the Philippines; he became the poster boy of local ice skating with life-sized cardboard cutouts beside the rink to match.

Medals and Olympic qualifications are an obvious reason for people to become excited over ice skating, but in 2016, another wave of interest could be traced back to one show: “Yuri on Ice.” The anime follows the story of Yuri Katsuki, a skater on the verge of retirement, who is trained by his lifelong idol Victor Nikiforov to compete in one the skating world’s biggest events, the Grand Prix. The unique characters and gorgeous animation had many fans lacing up their ice skatesand even winning medals.

Competitive figure skater Justine Gabrielle Lim revealed in an interview that she first became interested in skating after watching “Yuri on Ice”. Now, the unlikely inspiration from an anime has lead to seven gold medals in the 2018 Skate Asia, an international skating competition that attracted 1,000 participants.

In the same event, the Philippine team had brought home 103 medals with over 50 gold medals. It’s clear that the interest in ice skating is not waning any time soon.

Foreign settings, Local customs

Olympic medals and anime can only get public interest so far. Ultimately, what draws Filipinos to the skating rink is the same local culture that embraced Korean Barbecues and American Coffee chains. On one part, its the curiosity of a people that has always been quick to embrace the latest foreign imports. Ice skating, after all, is as foreign as it can get. Frozen floors and freezing temperatures transport skaters into the proverbial white winter scene many can only dream of. It’s doesn’t hurt that the skating rink is also an escape from the tropical heat.

However, more than any curiosity, it’s the social nature of the Filipino that brings them to the rinks. Not everyone is gunning to become an Olympic athlete, but everyone can appreciate a new interesting way to bond with friends. The first few moments in the rink are bound to be full of laughter as everyone moves across the ice shaking like a baby deer. There will be moments of falling, getting soaked, and dragging friends to fall down with you. There will be serious conversations while gliding around the rink, and there will also be the struggle to take pictures without anyone toppling over.

Its the moments like these that show why Filipinos love skating. The thrill of a new experience is one thing, but its the time spent with friends and family that Filipinos treasure far more. Filipinos are a curious people, but we’re far more sentimental than that.

An alien sport was adopted with open arms because of every tumble, every laugh, and every memory that it created.

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