Anatomy of a debacle
MANILA, Philippines—There is something fundamentally wrong with our national sports psyche when even political leaders perfume glaring sporting embarrassments with ignorant praise, writes the esteemed sports commentator Recah Trinidad.
Sometime last month, Malacañang came to the rescue of the country’s beleaguered sports leaders by calling the sordid performance of the Filipino athletes in the 26th Southeast Asian Games in Indonesia as a triumph of sorts.
Said presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda: “We congratulate our Philippine contingent for their noble performance …”
Lacierda was referring, of course, to the Philippines’ shameful tumble from the pinnacle of regional sporting glory in 2005 to sixth place overall in the Indonesia SEA Games last November.
Why the government, which spent P168 million for sports last year, saw neither a trace of a debacle nor a waste of public funds defies logic.
The Palace statement betrayed the government’s insensitivity to the role sports plays in nation building and to the decay that has gnawed at the foundations of local sports in recent years, according to Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero, a keen observer of PH sports.
“It is unfortunate that all these [the country’s sporting misfortunes] happened because the government, our sports leaders, and some big corporations with the ability to support our sports programs have become insensitive to the plight of our athletes and the poor state of sports,” said Escudero.
The country’s anemic athletic performance in Indonesia, the latest in a series of international setbacks for the once-proud Filipino athlete, stirred a hornet’s nest of sorts. What’s wrong with the country’s sports program? What triggered the latest skid?
There were several obvious culprits. According to the athletes themselves, the main ones are the shortage of cash to fund their training and stints in world-class competitions overseas, as well as the ruinous disputes over turf among sports leaders. In the Indonesian saga, the ill-prepared, unfocused Filipinos suffered in silence and took it on the chin.
Bruised and humbled
They left Manila with a good measure of confidence. They returned from Indonesia bruised and humbled. Collectively, they had failed again in the Games, the lowest form of multievent international competition whose standards paled significantly compared with the Asian Games or the Olympics.
Waging a futile battle against the vastly superior competition, Team Philippines crash-landed to its worst windup since 1979, when the country first joined the regional sporting spectacle.
As late as the eve of the Games, officials of both the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) and the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC), the government agency that funds the athletes’ training and competition exposure abroad, saw a golden hoard that proved too tough to mine in the end.
“I believe our target of 70 gold medals is achievable (Philippine Daily Inquirer/Nov. 9, 2011),” said PSC chair Richie Garcia, three days before the SEA Games formally opened in Palembang, capital city of South Sumatra. “With the high spirits of the athletes … it’s not far-fetched for us to be able to get 70.”
As far back as Jan. 11 last year, the POC said the country would settle for no less than the overall crown in the Games.
“We will not go there just for the sake of participating,” said POC president Jose “Peping” Cojuangco Jr., who has been at the helm of the local Olympic body for seven and a half years. “Our target is to win the overall title. There’s no more excuse for us not to excel. We now have the resources.”
Terribly way off target
Garcia and Cojuangco were terribly way off target.
At the conclusion of the competitions in the Games’ main hub in Palembang, the capital city Jakarta, and the satellite venue West Java, the ill-prepared Filipinos could only snatch 36 of the 546 golds on offer, equivalent to a paltry 6.6 percent share of the victory pie.
“[The country’s poor SEA Games performance] is a call for sports leaders to explain their flawed sports program,” said Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, who invited top officials of the PSC and the POC, as well as heads of NSAs [national sports associations] to a Senate hearing as soon as the smoke of battle cleared.
He also blamed the country’s faltering stature in international sports on politics and politicians “whose objective is to perpetuate themselves in power.”
‘Politics destroys sports’
“Politics has destroyed sports,” Trillanes fumed. “These officials forgot that their basic mandate is to promote sports excellence in the country.”
The SEA Games gold count paled in comparison to the country’s 38 victories in the 2009 Laos Games, where the Filipinos wound up fifth overall despite fielding a lean contingent of 251 athletes.
The 527-strong Philippine delegation in Indonesia fared even badly than the contingent in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, in 2007 which, despite also ending up sixth overall, captured 41 golds. The Thailand nosedive came barely two years after the Philippines won the Games’ overall championship at home.
Certainly, the Filipino athletes didn’t retrogress based on measurable performances. They actually progressed, but at a pace slower than their regional rivals. The turnover of talents was also so slow that nine Filipinos who bagged golds six years ago in the Manila SEA Games were still among the Indonesia Games’ champions.
Some athletes, like the judoka John Baylon and Fil-American netter Cecil Mamiit, held court for far too long that officials conveniently neglected to bring the two battlers’ heirs apparent up to speed. Their former foes, meanwhile, had been substituted by younger, stronger replacements.
Battle-weary and no longer as invincible as they used to be, Baylon and Mamiit finally yielded their SEA Games crowns in Indonesia. With the thick sweat of defeat still trickling down his face, Baylon announced his retirement, and Mamiit later declared he would now concentrate on coaching the national team in the Davis Cup.
For sure, there are other problems hounding Philippine sports: Insufficient funding, inferior equipment, dearth of good training facilities, ill-equipped trainers, faulty processes for selecting national team members, to name just a few.
Perfect recipe for disaster
Throw in the internal squabbles wracking national sports associations (NSAs) and you’ve got the perfect recipe for disaster.
What a pity then that the POC and the PSC now enjoy a harmonious relationship. Simply put, what the POC endorses, the PSC supports with funds.
That alone should have worked to the Filipino athletes’ advantage in the last SEA Games, said former ambassador and Manila Rep. Harry Angping, who frequently clashed with Cojuangco over policies when he was still chair of the PSC up until the end of the Arroyo administration.
“It’s very unfortunate that the PSC has become a unit of the POC and as such has given up its independence and has eased up on its role of searching for young, promising athletes from the grassroots,” said Angping.
It is widely known in sports circles that Cojuangco, uncle of President Aquino, was instrumental in the appointment of Garcia—a topnotch golfer in the POC head’s Luisita senior team— to the top PSC post.
The lack of government funds for sports and the dysfunctional leadership setups in many NSAs could be the biggest reasons why the Filipino athletes fell hard on their faces in Indonesia, but for Amateur Boxing Association Philippines president Ricky Vargas, under-performing NSAs should also be taken to task for failing to create win-win programs.
“The key is to create a program and then sell that program,” said Vargas, president of Maynilad, one of the companies controlled by businessman and sports philantropist Manny V. Pangilinan. “I’m sure that if they (NSAs) have a good enough program, they will not only get support from government but also from the private sector.”
For a country of over 94 million people, the Philippines this year worked on a P168-million budget appropriated for sports by Congress. In contrast, Singapore, the tiny city-state with a population of under five million, spent the equivalent of P5 billion over the same period and ended up a rung higher than the Philippines in the SEA Games.
“Sports received P168 million from our annual budget [last year], but we cannot expect much from this,” said Escudero. “We want to see winners, but how can we build a factory of world champions, or SEA Games winners at the least, with this?
“Success in sports is reciprocal to the money allotted to the athletes’ training, the quality of coaching they receive and the amount of preparation they pour into each competition,” the youthful senator added. “We cannot expect much [from our athletes] if we spread our resources too thinly.”
P1 million for a gold
Many critics cringe at the cost of a single victory in Indonesia, considering that the PSC spent P30 million for the athletes’ participation in the Games.
“It means that one gold medal in the SEA Games is worth more than a million pesos (Philippine Daily Inquirer/Nov. 22, 2011),” fumed Trillanes. “Unbelievable!”
Vargas said it “should be a government decision” to increase the allotment for sports and to draw private-sector support for it.
Under Vargas, Abap was able to attract a huge corporate sponsor in Smart-PLDT, the telecoms giant owned by Pangilinan, who is also the chair of the boxing federation and president of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas.
Money coming from the PSC’s constitutionally mandated 5-percent share of the gross earnings of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor), amounting to P40 million a month, supplements the meager PSC budget but this is not enough, according to Garcia. (In all, the PSC allotted a total of P400 million for the 37 NSAs under the POC this year.)
Cojuangco himself rued the continued constriction of the government budget for sports and pointed out that the NSAs that did well in Indonesia were the ones that drew private support.
Many deserving athletes and NSAs received little support from the PSC before the SEA Games. Many others were forced to scrounge for funds, like the baseball team which won gold. The bridge players used their own money to compete in the biennial competition.
Defects in selection process
That these so-called “Unchosen Ones” delivered for the country highlighted certain defects in the selection process for the national team, stirring vocal athletes like basketball star Chris Tiu to question the viability of the country’s sports program.
Tiu, the most celebrated member of the champion men’s basketball team, said he could understand the Filipinos losing to the Indonesians, the runaway overall Games champion, or to the perennial powerhouse Thais, but not to tiny Singapore.
“If we lose to Thailand, to Indonesia, that would be OK for me,” said Tiu, co-skipper of the national team told the Inquirer. “But to lose to Singapore? That’s absurd.
“I have nothing against the Singaporeans. But look at them, they’re very few, the base for selecting the athletes is so small. And when you look at them, they’re not even athletic.”
Tiu had a point there. Talents have been scarce in coming for the Philippines. A clear case in point: After Miguel Molina, a former Most Outstanding Athlete in the SEA Games, retired a few months ago, swimming laid a big fat egg in Palembang.
Garcia and Cojuangco have a common answer to that: Prosperous Singapore has a much bigger budget for sports and its well-trained athletes enjoy the benefits of proper nutrition.
Never mind that 17 of the Singaporean’s 42 SEA Games golds came from aquatic sport, the turf of one of Cojuangco’s closest allies, Mark Joseph of the Philippine Aquatic Sports Association (Pasa).
Cojuangco, the shrewd politician whose watch has been wracked by leadership disputes in swimming, cycling, table tennis and at least six other NSAs, presides over a local Olympic body that has been criticized for coming down hard on those who do not toe the line.
Because it recognized a rival faction of the Integrated Cycling Federation of the Philippines (PhilCycling), the POC brought a set of cyclists to the 2009 SEA Games in Laos without obtaining competition licenses for them from the Union Cycliste International (UCI), which is represented in the country by PhilCycling president Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino, also the mayor of Tagaytay City.
As a result the Filipinos were barred from the competition. Tolentino, meanwhile, is still awaiting POC recognition despite enjoying the complete backing of the UCI.
Go Teng Kok, the once-powerful head of the athletics federation and a former close ally of Cojuangco, came to grief when he took the local Olympic body to court for recognizing POC spokesperson Jose Romasanta as leader of the national karate association, which Go claims he also heads. The POC, on the instigation of several ranking officials including the body’s chair, Monico Puentevella of weightlifting, immediately expelled Go from the body.
“Who says that all these reported squabbles among the national sports associations are not causing damage to our [sports] programs?” said Escudero. “We have not seen a leader who has had a trouble-free stint as a POC president. All the people who headed the POC and the PSC, as I recall, were always beset with leadership problems among the NSAs. What’s in there that causes sports leaders to fight among themselves? Fame, fortune, pride? Where has sportsmanship gone?”
“Some government leaders, politicians and their relatives seem to have found political solace in sports,” said Escudero. “Many of them use sports to prop up their image, or as a haven after their political stars have faded, perhaps hoping sports could serve as springboard for their comeback. It has become a cycle, everything’s the same then as now.”
Strongly entrenched allies
Cojuangco’s allies remain strongly entrenched in the POC, though, even if their respective NSAs could not buy a good showing in international events.
Joseph, whose legitimacy as Pasa president is being questioned in court by a group of top swimmers, coaches and parents, still enjoys Cojuangco’s confidence as deputy secretary general. As for swimming’s big fat zero in Jakarta, Joseph reasoned out that the national swimming team also failed to land a gold in the 2003 SEA Games.
Garcia said the PSC should not be blamed for the Indonesian fiasco because the agency did not meddle in the selection of athletes by the NSAs. He neglected to say that the PSC had assigned his commissioners to oversee funding for certain sports and to ensure that only the finest athletes were sent to Indonesia.
As recriminations flew, Julian Camacho, the country’s deputy chief of mission in the Games, told reporters that the spicy Indonesian food could be the big reason why the Philippine performance dipped. Camacho’s remark failed to amuse Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel, chair of the Senate Committee on Games Amusement and Sport, and Trillanes, chair of the Senate Committee on Civil Service and Government Reorganization.
Abolish the PSC
In exasperation, Trillanes proposed that the government abolish the PSC and replace it with a cabinet-level office, also under the Office of the President.
Pimentel, meanwhile, sought a deeper probe of the SEA Games fiasco and warned that the sports officials responsible for the debacle should be held accountable for “misusing public funds.”
Trillanes’ stance, according to a PSC insider, smacks of vengeance. The senator remains outside the POC family because his election as table tennis president is said to have violated the constitution and by-laws of Tatap and of the local Olympic body. Both the government sports agency and the POC recognize Rex Tiu, who was elected last November, replacing the resigned Col. Hawthorne Cezar Binag, as Tatap president.
“Conflict in competitive sports is definitely a waste of time and money,” said Joseph, who has been described by his critics, including former Sen. Nikki Coseteng, chief supporter of the Philippine Swimming League, as an “illegitimate head” of Pasa for claiming victory in an election he was accused of railroading. The PSL and its member clubs refuse to be part of the Pasa.
Pettiness of detractors
Joseph countered: “As far as Philippine swimming and all the aquatic sports’ programs are concerned, it’s business as usual. We don’t engage in the pettiness of our detractors, who are not even members of our NSA. I guess it’s really the warring faction—usually the one that has the most vested interests and least respect for rules and values—that are their own obstacle.”
Vargas of boxing said the key to improving the standing of the NSA and, consequently, the athletes is by the enlistment of private-sector support.
“If you are able to get the support of the private sector, you are one step ahead,” said Vargas.
Getting that support, however, is easier said than done, he concedes. And coming from the private sector, Vargas said it doesn’t help that the NSAs are rocked by leadership disputes and have little direction.
“The NSA must be credible,” said Vargas. “You must have a program that they believe in and you should show them the roadmap to your success.”
For Vargas, boxing’s respectable showing in recent international competitions cannot hide the fact that Philippine sports is “at a low moment.”
“I’m sorry to say but we are at a low moment in Philippine sports,” he said. “The facilities are not good enough to encourage our athletes to perform. We don’t have enough programs.”
What disappoints Vargas the most is the finger-pointing that comes after every failed campaign.
“Every time we lose, the poor athlete or the NSA is blamed for everything,” he said. “It’s important to look at all the elements of the puzzle for everything to work and that includes the PSC and the POC and the sports leaders and people in Congress who must commit to a program.”
Vargas added: “Everyone is pointing a finger at anyone. It’s all about performance, and pointing fingers is the wrong way of assessing it.”
Success in sports
Escudero said success in sports is reciprocal to the money allotted to athletes’ training, the quality of coaching they receive and the amount of preparation they could pour in each competition.
“Our sports officials have said it many times, that they will prioritize sports which have greater chances of bringing in the medals we badly wanted,” he said. “But not much has been done and they remained just promises.
“Sports needs the best managers to run things well, like in any well-managed corporation. Some politicians could be very good managers, but they could not be divided in their political pursuits and mix them with sports. In the end, it’s they who benefit from sports and sports doesn’t gain much from their managerial expertise.”
Angping’s tumultuous relationship with Cojuangco and the POC was marked by, among other things, his insistence on supporting only the deserving athletes and on getting NSAs to shape up.
“During my time, I focused on the athletes, not the NSAs, some of whom didn’t really have a development program to speak of,” he said. “So how do you expect these NSAs to improve the performances of their athletes?
“This is the best time to really start changes in Philippine sports,” Angping emphasized. “The PSC has hundreds of millions in two banks. They can start tapping new talents in the grassroots. It can form two groups to start everything; one will handle the athletes, the other will tap foreign coaches and develop the skills of local coaches.”
Modern training facility
Cojuangco believes that, to avert another sporting debacle, the government should prioritize the setting up of a modern training facility, where athletes could train year-round without losing edge or focus.
Armed with a grant of $50,000 from the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) to develop a plan for such a center, he already has one favored location in mind: Sacobia, a hilly area in Bamban, Tarlac, on the fringes of Clark Field in Pampanga.
“There, the athletes can train all they want under respected foreign coaches and in facilities that approximate the ones they compete in abroad,” he said. “Their nutrition will be monitored, and since the place is secluded, there will be no distractions.”
Alas, even the POC chief’s nephew in Malacañang is not buying his proposal —not now at least. In a recent meeting at the Palace, the President told Cojuangco that the government does not have the cash to fund the construction of the Sacobia facility. The POC will have to make do with old, dilapidated training facilties.
Now, who says that government is insentive to the plight of the Filipino athlete?
(With reports from Roy Luarca,
Jasmine W. Payo, Cedelf P. Tupas, Musong R. Castillo, Marc Anthony Reyes and June Navarro.)