In addition to the many negative distinctions that the country has earned during the watch of President BS Aquino —such as the worst international airport in the world, the highest electricity prices in the world—we must now add the worst performance by the Philippines in the Southeast Asian Games (SEAG) since the games were first staged in 1977.
This dubious distinction became crystal clear at the close of the 27th SEAG in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar last Sunday, December 22. When the final medal tally was reckoned, the country placed seventh, with a total haul of only 29 gold, 34 silver and 37 bronze medals- well behind Thailand (first once again), Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and host Myanmar (fourth for the first time). Singapore cemented its claim to sixth place, a feat it first achieved in the 26th SEAG in Palembang, Indonesia in 2011.
The dismal finish is nothing less than shocking and incomprehensible to many Filipinos for several glaring and galling reasons:
First, we are a sports-loving people and nation, with a well-earned place on the map of global sports, and a history of success in international sports competition. Manny Pacquiao, a world boxing champion in eight different divisions is an international superstar. A number of our pool players have won world championships and made Manila the pool capital of the world.
Second, we placed first in the SEAG in 2005, when we last hosted the games in Manila (together with Cebu and Bacolod), and when we took a national record haul of 113 gold medals.
Third, we are the second most populous country in Southeast Asia, next only to Indonesia with our population of nearly 100 million people.
Fourth, we have unrivalled supremacy in the three most popular sports in the country, basketball, boxing and billiards. Since 1987, we have never failed to take gold medals in these sports. This year is the very first time we got shut out in the gold medal race in billiards. And we have a creditable record in other sports like athletics and martial arts.
The role of presidents
Falling short of public expectation first occurred in the 26th SEAG in Palembang, Indonesia 2011, when we placed fifth in the medal standings and the first SEAG under the leadership of President Aquino.
Following the debacle in Indonesia, some of our athletes themselves (notably Chris Tiu in basketball) expressed consternation that even tiny Singapore took sixth place ahead of us. Some said that if we fielded instead our OFWs in Singapore, we would probably have done better.
The dismal news for President BS, is that when ranged against the president he perennially compares himself to, President Arroyo, he comes up way behind. In 2005, with the energetic support of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the country took first place in the medal standings for the first and only time.
Previously, President Marcos had much success in strengthening national sports through the Gintong Alay program. President Cory Aquino presided over the writing of a charter for the Philippine Olympic Committee, which unfortunately is not being followed today, as well as the passage of laws and executive orders.
In just two SEAGs, with BS Aquino at the helm, we have plunged to unprecedented depths of failure each time.
Ascribing sports success and failure to the ruling government is metaphorical at best, because our presidents do not compete in the games. But they shoulder a measure of responsibility because the sports officials who lead the charge do so with the explicit backing of the president.
It’s our athletes who compete or fail to win.
But that said, given past success, there’s no question that we have the fundamental assets to perform well in international sports competition, especially at this regional level in Southeast Asia. With better organization, planning and training, we can do way, way better in the SEAG, perhaps even contending every two years for first place against Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, the acknowledged sports powers in the region.
A failure in sports leadership
Following this shocking failure in Myanmar, there will be again much recrimination and denunciation in media and Congress about this shameful performance. Sports officials will be denounced and asked to resign. And the athletes will be shunted aside.
There will be calls by legislators for a congressional inquiry into why we fail in sports so dismally.
There will be numerous critical commentaries in the media, like this column, calling for a massive overhaul of our sports system.
I can speak with some knowledge about the challenge because I have firsthand experience about leading our country’s participation and preparation for competition in one sport (billiards, when I served as chairman of its national sports association). I know what it takes to enable our athletes to succeed. And I know how much support can be tapped in government and the private sector for this to come about.
I know how much the media can contribute to a successful sports program, having seen the whole spectrum of media roles, as publisher, editor, columnist and reporter.
Change must begin with a thorough examination of how sports is organized and governed in our country.
We have to find out where the real weaknesses are.
We have to consult and confer with the people who care the most about sports: the athletes, the sports officials, the sponsors, the promoters, and the fans.
And we must look unflinchingly at the reality that an autocracy rules Philippine sports today—that the Philippine Olympic Committee has an unprecedented and unhealthy dominance over our sports system and our participation in international sports competition, that the Philippine Sports Commission, contrary to law, is submissive to the POC, and that the system of national sports associations (NSAs) has become dysfunctional.
Constructive Praise Department
White paper on Philippine sports system
In an expression of grave concern about the state of Philippine sports, Sen. Antonio Trillanes filed some months back a complaint of malversation of public funds with the Ombudsman against our top sports officials, mincing no words and sparing no one. It may or may not amount to something, we shall see.
In the past, there were similar gestures of concern in Congress, but they died as soon as the publicity in the media stopped. The interested legislators lost interest. And they haven’t been heard from again by the athletes.
Personally, I believe that more than complaints and lawsuits, we can go farther forward, if we adopt the English and Australian approach to the making of sound public policy—which is the preparation first of a white paper on the issue that is of grave public concern.
The Trillanes initiative will benefit from the preparation of an expert and comprehensive white paper on the Philippine sports system, examining why it’s failing and how it can be reformed to work better.
That is a project to which many can and will contribute, if the objectives are clear and the direction of the study is impartial professional and fair.