Countless takedowns and throws from years of practicing and teaching wrestling are not enough for Karlo Sevilla 3rd to shake off the woes harrowing mankind’s oldest sport. After all, the 38-year-old athlete and coach experienced them first hand as the secretary general of the Wrestling Association of the Philippines (WAP).
Wrestling despite being part of the ancient Olympics in Greece since 708 B.C. was nearly removed from the list of core events in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan following an International Olympic Committee (IOC) recommendation. A worldwide uproar soon erupted. “Save Olympic Wrestling” became the mantra repeated in major social media websites. The IOC gave in to the pressure and reinstated the sport in the Games’ roster in September.
Despite the victory, the challenges facing wrestlers in the Philippines still continue; one of them is finding an athlete who can actually qualify in the Olympic Games. “Before 1988 as long as you are the number one in your country and endorsed by the Philippine Olympic Committee, you’ll go straight to the Olympics,” said Sevilla. “After 1988, there came continental qualifiers. After their establishment, we were not able to go through.”
Sevilla said the Philippines’ highest achievement in an international wrestling event came about in the 1954 Asian Games in Manila when three Filipino competitors won a bronze and two silver medals. He mentioned a number of factors hampering the development of the sport, among them lack of promotion, training, equipment, pool of wrestlers and exposure to challenging sparring partners. “In other countries they don’t have a problem. The US has over 200,000 in their pool and Iran has over 300,000,” he said. “Here I think we are about 500.”
This discrepancy becomes more apparent when local wrestlers train abroad. “Morale is high, but when we send them to other countries, they realize how much far behind we are,” Sevilla said. He added that many athletes are not well off, yet still compelled to send a portion of their meager stipend to their families.
Wrestling is the national sport of a dozen or more countries, but the Philippines has no national tradition of wrestling, according to Sevilla. “We have scattered areas with wrestling traditions, there are quite a few,” he said. These areas include the provinces of Antique and Iloilo with dumog, Ifugao with boltong, and Laguna with buno, which are often displayed during town fiestas.
“Our international organization promotes traditional wrestling. That’s what we really want,” Sevilla said. But he also sees these locales as potential breeding grounds for Olympic athletes. “Antiqueños are more inclined to grappling than striking. It is only a matter of making these people who already know wrestling to appreciate the sport.”
Proof of his thesis is Jason Balabal, a full-blooded Ifugao and the country’s main prospect for 84kg Greco-Roman wrestling in the Southeast Asian Games in Myanmar. “He grew up playing boltong,” Sevilla said. “There was a time when most of our wrestlers are from Iloilo where dumog is a tradition.”
“There was a survey years back on what sports are popular among most Filipinos, and wrestling is in the top 10,” Sevilla said. “But I’m pretty sure that that was professional wrestling, and not Olympic wrestling.” According to him, awareness of authentic sport wrestling among Filipinos only happened in the late 1990s owing to the popularity of mixed-martial arts (MMA). “I’ve met many who appreciated wrestling because of MMA. We had interested athletes, but many of them are just there to cross-train. They didn’t have the Olympic dream.”
Compared to other sports like boxing or tae kwon do, wrestling has no major and long-term partner, according to Sevilla. “This will change given we’ve proven our youth is very dedicated and sincere in helping our sport”. He said they hope to woo and win the support of private corporations, whose funding can help them send more delegates in international tournaments in 2014.
Sevilla said that to find an Olympian, they search among children, specifically high school students. His optimism stems from the inclusion of wrestling in the 2014 Palarong Pambansa (National Games) in Dumaguete City, where it will be staged as a demonstration sport. “We’ll take off from there,” he said.
Sevilla encourages private and public high schools to establish a wrestling program to prepare for the intense inter-region competition in Palarong Pambansa. According to him, it is possible for child athletes who will grow up competing in the Philippine Sports Commission’s Batang Pinoy sports program and Palarong Pambansa to qualify, or even win a medal, in future Olympic Games. “We still need a little more time, but maybe in 2024 it is more realistic.”