From first to seventh: The depressing decline of Philippine sports



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.


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  1. It makes me sad that the Philippines with so much potential is beaten by nations like Thailand and others so easily. You are a sports loving nation, I have seen your passion for basketball when watching past SEA games with my brother in law.
    Like you have said Sir Yen, you have the second biggest population and a demographic profile of youth, love sports and these are starting points to build on and become a regional sporting power again.
    I have seen my country Australia improve from an abysmal failure In Montreal Olympics to 4th in Sydney Olympics only behind the US, China and Russia and with our small population an outstanding effort.
    We still manage to stay in the Top 10 at the Olympics as other nations invest more in sport.
    What transformed Australian sport was the creation of the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra , maybe the Phillippines could adopt a similiar centre The Pilipinas Sports Centre in Cebu where talented youngsters are identified and can train with the best coaches, sports scientists and motivators in the country and away from other distractions.
    Scholarships could be granted and major corporations could sponsor certain sports or athletes. The San Miguel swimmers, The Jolibee runners who knows.
    Yen I think you would be an excellent choice to help establish a Pilipinas Sports Centre based on the Australian Institute of Sports model.
    Youth participation is also important so that pinoy youth can be encouraged to try and take part in as many sports as possible and see a future in sports if they so choose to follow their hearts in the sport they love.
    The determination and spirit of the Philippines has been seen by the world after typhoon Yolanda and this shows that anything can be achieved by the Pilipinas when all parts of the nation strive together.
    I look forward to seeing the Philippines on top of the medal tally at future SEA games , and with more Olympic medals as well.
    Sports success can lift a nations spirits and is well worth any investment as what value can be placed on a nations pride and self image.

  2. What else can we expect. It only mirrors the sad state of PNoy’s health: an unsound mind in an unsound body.

  3. Sports is indeed a reflection of our health and attitude as a nation. If we can’t even dominate in a part of the world where we are at par with everybody, in height, stature, health and economically, we really need to take a serious look at how we are as a society. The first thing we need to throw out is our politicians, the second is our system of government, we need to clean up our act. Do we even have a plan for the future?

  4. Cecilio sasuman( titilio tatuman) should tell pnoy ” puro ka sisi , puro ka sisi ” . This adminstration is expert only in one GAME. BLAME GAME

  5. It takes heart to a champion. Not money. The drive to be one comes from the athlete themselves. No matter how much money a country puts into it’s sports program, it does not equate into gold medals. The athletes must rise to the challenge.

    Invest money is school sports programs. If you look around the Philipine nation. How many children have experince playing organized sports. This is the starting point of develoment for the next level.

    Other nations support their athletes win or lose. The Philipines only support winners. This is why you only have a few, and they are short lived. How about this, we support them because they represent the best in us.

  6. Indeed, our country’s performance in the recently concluded SEAG Games is dismal and lamentable. If it’s true that a country’s economic development is in a way reflected in the stage of its sports development, then there is a serious disconnect between the Philippines’ much taunted economic growth these past three years and the country’s seventh place in the SEAG Games. This truism in the economic – sports connectivity was shown in the 60’s when the Philippines, then considered the second most developed Asian country next to Japan, was acknowledged a regional sports power. Tokyo hosted the 1964 Olympics and Beijing the 2008 Olympics to underscore Japan’s and China’s emergence as economic powers. If indeed the Philippines is no longer the sick man of Asia why did it place seventh? This dismal performance helps explain why in ASEAN, the Philippines’ so-called economic miracle is taken with a grain of salt and why the Philippines continues to be lumped together with the second tier members of ASEAN – the CLMP ( Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines)’ despite the fact that the Philippines was one of the five founders of the Association in 1967.