Not many men can claim they’ve faced the best. Not many can say they grabbed hold of a doubting world’s attention, and for a few moments, humanity was gripped by their resolute exploits for a win, for grace or national pride, for the right to say I’ve faced the best. I have pulled off the unbelievable.
We saw in the 2012 London Summer Olympics the pure determination of 19-year-old boxer Mark Barriga. He was the shortest fighter in his division, and yet with brilliant footwork and a crisp right hook, he dropped his Italian opponent in the first round. Even when he was defeated by a single point by the Kazakh Birzhan Zhakypov, Barriga demonstrated the refusal to be dominated by ugly techniques that belonged more in a wrestling match. Despite losing, he was able to gain the crowd’s admiration with his resolve and clean punches. The audience made up mostly of people from foreign countries was won to his side. They started to chant “Phi-li-ppines! Phi-li-ppines!”
Our country’s campaign for athletic glory can be likened to Barriga’s Olympic story—an expedition fueled by an earnest passion for sports that has yet to make headway. The Philippines was the first nation from Southeast Asia to compete in the Olympics, the first Southeast Asian country to win an Olympic medal. And yet until now we only have two silver medals (boxer Mansueto Velasco in 1996 and swimmer Anthony Villanueva in 1964) and seven bronze medals.
In 2013, the task of gaining honor for Philippine sports is again upon us. This year brings about a milestone and an opportunity for Philippine sports as it marks the Hundredth Year Anniversary of the Far Eastern Championship Games—the very first international sports gathering in Asia, which was actually held in the country on February 4, 1913.
The Far Eastern Championship Games was a time of optimism and hope for Filipino athletes and sports lovers. It featured extraordinary performances from our athletes, including Luis Salvador’s 116-point effort to lead the Philippines over China to capture the gold medal in basketball. The Rizal Memorial Coliseum, which could hold 30,000 spectators, had also just been constructed to host the games. Gawking at the triumphant athletes and the newly built sports complex, one must have had this vision of the future of Philippine sports—brilliant, exciting, like sunlight illuminating a great trophy.
Our sports administrators
Nearly a century later, what has become of the hope and brilliance of the Far Eastern Games? 2012 was a year that brought both honor and defeat to Filipino athletes. What was the most striking Philippine sport experience in 2012? Was it our athletes’ gutsy though disappointing performances in the London Olympics? Manny Pacquiao’s unbelievable knockout loss to Juan Manuel Marquez? Or perhaps LA Tenorio’s clutch jump shot with just 20 seconds left to defeat the United States Team, 76-75, and win the William Jones Cup?
For this writer, an experience to remember was more educational than exciting as it provided the opportunity to see our country’s sports administrators at work at the Olympic Council of Asia General Assembly. The gathering of global sports leaders was held on October 8 last year at the Macau East Asia Games Dome.
Our country was represented by Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) president Jose Cojuangco, Jr., Robert “Dodot” Jaworski, Jr., and Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski. Known as a second generation sports hero, Jaworski is the son of basketball’s Living Legend, Sonny Jaworski, and was valuable member of the popular Ginebra/Gordon’s Gin basketball team in the 90s. His wife, Mikee, meanwhile is a popular television personality who won a gold medal for the country as an equestrian in the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, South Korea.
The two athletes addressed an impressive gathering of 400 leaders of the world’s Olympic associations global decision makers in sports, including the Executive Board of the Olympic Council Asia (OCA) led by Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah (former Minister of Oil of Kuwait and president of both the OCA and the Association of National Olympic Committees) and Lord Sebastian Coe (Life Peer of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, former Olympic Games world record holder for middle distance track events, and chairman of the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games).
Jaworki’s address was a firm declaration of the Philippines’ resolve to stand out in sports. He reminded the sports leaders that international athletic competitions in Asia actually started in the Philippines with the Far Eastern Games. He said the 100th Anniversary of the Far Eastern Games was not only an occasion for us to prove our mettle in sports, but as a nation that was ready to rise with the rest of Asia. Jaworski also spoke as an envoy for our tourism industry when he showed off the venue of the Anniversary—the powdery white sands of Boracay.
A wish for Philippine Sports
Today marks the 100th Year Anniversary of the Far Eastern Games, the time when Filipinos first looked forward to the feats and victories of our athletes. Like Jaworski, we may also see this as time when we can revitalize our faith and aspirations for Philippine sports.
When our delegates to the 2012 London Olympics returned with no medals last year, most Filipinos were not surprised—it was as if they had expected our athletes to lose. When Manny Pacquiao, our greatest sports hero, was knocked out by Juan Manuel Marquez, some of the most disheartening remarks came from our countrymen. There were even some who said he deserved the defeat. These discouraging words prompted kickboxing champion Jerson Estoro to post on Facebook: “Ngayon maglalabasan na naman ang mga utak talangka.”
Estoro’s observation perhaps represents how Filipino athletes feel about their countrymen. Being an athlete is a lonesome endeavor—most days are spent at the sports center, tiring and pushing one’s self without anyone knowing. What our athletes yearn for are not the ostentatious celebrations that come after winning, but the steady source of inspiration and support whether they are just training, when they winning, and even when they are losing.
In the many years after the Far Eastern Games, we have criticized different people for our losses. We have blamed athletes; we have blamed sports administrators. We have not recognized the successes they have attained despite their meager resources. In 2011, the Philippine Sports Commission received a P400 million budget to support the programs of sports associations and athletes nationwide. In contrast, our neighbor Singapore had a sports budget of P7.4 billion. Our athletes have been competing each year against opponents who receive more than ten times their financial provision.
And yet, despite this obstacle, Filipino athletes have forged on with exemplary performances though it has not been recognized. For instance not a lot of people know that our athletes and sports and administrators have been delivering great results during Cojuangco’s term as POC president. In 2005 we won for the first time the Southeast Asian Games Championship. We have also been receiving the best results in terms of medals in the Asian Games, and have attained victories in global Muay Thai and Dragon Boat competitions. It is very disheartening that their hard work and successes have not been acknowledged, let alone appreciated.
This year provides an occasion for us to show our appreciation for our athletes, and renew our belief in their ability to succeed. POC president Cojuangco is organizing a celebration for our athletes in the Hundredth Year Anniversary of the Far Eastern Games. We must take part in this event to honor them and recognize their efforts. Another way for us to show support is by joining Gawad Kalinga volunteers who are building a retirement village for them this year.
This writer’s personal wish for Philippine sports in the Hundredth Year Anniversary of the Far Eastern Championship Games, however, is perhaps harder and more important than the construction of a retirement village, or an increase in our sports budget—it is for us to cast off the “utak talangka,” for us to stand again with, and believe our athletes. Our players also need the daily pat on the back, a smile when we see them jogging on the road.
Most of us have been fans of Philippine sports for a lifetime. We have been rooting for Team Pilipinas since we watched our first basketball game on TV, the day we first saw the wide breadth of a soccer field, the instance we first laced gloves. We have placed bets on teams, argued with supporters of other countries, prayed for sports miracles as if our lives depended on it. We are part of their expedition towards glory and Olympic gold.
If there is something that we can learn from our athletes, it is that we must stay the course despite bleak odds. Despite being shorter and having less resources, our resolve and faith in them can win medals and other countries’ respect. Much like Pacquiao or Donaire, our small, plain gloves can be the center of attention in a global arena of big names and glittering lights.