Sports are a big loser in the nearly 40-year-old armed conflict in the South.
The undeclared war in Mindanao between the government and rebel forces has deprived the region’s young men and women, Christian and Muslim alike, of a sporting chance to show their athletic abilities in disciplines where in the past their peers delivered.
Swimming was one where tankers from southern Philippines excelled.
Bana Sailani, Dakula Arabani, Sampang Hassan, Amir Hussin Hamsain, Roosevelt Abdulgafur, Haylil Said, Amman Jalmaani, Jairulla Jaitulla, Kemalpasa Umih, Dae Imlani and Ibnorajik Muksan, among other Filipino Muslim swimmers, battled stroke by stroke in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s traditionally formidable counterparts from world power Japan and winning against them in the Asian Games in those decades.
Their heirs apparent, meanwhile, consistently made it to the usually eight-person finals in the Asiad, at least showing that the Philippines had a bench deep enough for rivals to worry about them.
Why, Mindanao is surrounded by water, and so are the country’s two other biggest group of islands—Luzon and Visayas—but I guess the Badjaos and Maranaos take to water much earlier than Manileños or Cebuanos.
Yet, since the glory days of Philippine swimming that produced the Sailanis and the Muksans, no Filipinos from the South—Christian or Muslim—have emerged to crowd the Japanese and then the Chinese and South Koreans in the freestyle or butterfly events in the Asian Games, considered as the world’s second-biggest gathering of elite athletes next to the Olympic Games.
There have been a few from Luzon and the Visayas but—not to take anything away from them—their feats are only Southeast Asian Games level, which is anything but world-class, if you will, with the exception of Gerardo “Ral” Rosario.
And even at that level, we get drowned by swimmers from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, even Vietnam.
Those four neighboring countries have fewer people than the Philippines, which has found it hard to produce from its close to 100 million population an Asian Games champion since Rosario pulled it off in 1978 by winning the gold medal in the 200-meter freestyle, the only top-podium finish for the Filipino squad in swimming and all other events in Bangkok.
Since that year, no other Filipino swimmer—Christian, Muslim, homegrown, foreign-trained—has placed first in the Asiad (the Olympics are altogether a different proposition).
Obviously, you need a swimming pool to train, you need coaches, you need peace of mind most of all in order to make yourself a competitive tanker even at the provincial level.
But with bullets flying around you, evacuees being temporarily housed in a school in whose swimming pool you might be practicing, food being hard to come by, corner men too costly to hire especially if they are non-Filipinos, you get distracted, if not scared, and out goes the window your dream to represent your province in the Palarong Pambansa (Philippine National Games), breeder of internationally competitive players.
Aspiring athletes from the South have had to deal with those distractions since the 1970s when Mindanao began reeling from communist and separatist insurgencies.
Because of what they have been suffering from and from what is happening in southern Philippines now, we can kiss goodbye our thirst and hunger for a gold medal, at least in swimming.
Our future sports greats have had enough of ending up as collateral damage in a war that they did not have anything to do with in the first place.