Paolo Monteiro talks about how palakasan is not only about athletes besting each other in sport but also an issue of power struggle at the highest levels of sports authorities
Palakasan is a two-sided coin. One can view it as athletes trying to best each other in a sport, bringing out man’s most admirable qualities: skill, determination, humility in victory, and graciousness after defeat. However, when London 2012 ended, our smallest-ever contingent of 11 athletes in 8 sports came home empty-handed. The finger-pointing began, with sports officials and politicians blaming the lack of financial support and the power struggles at the highest levels of the sports authorities.i
Contrast this with our most popular teams today: Smart-Gilas and the Azkals. Although their leaderships were once embroiled in disputes, they have since reformed, and are now widely supported by fans and financiers, win or lose. Thus, begs the question of whether our other teams have a thing or two to learn from our national basketball and football teams.
Jaemark Tordecilla’s, talk on the Future of Philippine Sports during TEDxDiliman, delivered a couple of weeks after the London Olympics, holds relevance. Tordecilla, the author of the Philippine sports blog, FireQuinito, and managing director of sports website, InterAKTV, points out that the future of Philippine sports lies beyond government. He argues that, in returning to the pinnacle of world sports, authorities can take a page from basketball.
Tordecilla starts his exposition by focusing on the oft-cited reason for our failure in the international arena: the lack of government funding. He puts into perspective the country’s sports budget, mentioning that Manny Pacquiao’s earnings from a single fight is already equivalent to—or greater than—the total allocation for sports.
Indeed, Philippine funding in sports is dwarfed by our neighbour and rival at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, Thailand. In 2012 alone, the Thai government allocated THB3.062 billion (P3.9 billion) for the Sport Authority of Thailandii, compared to the P178 million received by the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) last yeariii, excluding remittances from PAGCOR and other sources.
Resulting from such massive investment in sport over the years, Thailand was overall SEA Games Champion in 2007 and 2009, and finished 2nd in 2005 and 2011. The Philippines, on the other hand, has slid from being champions in 2005 to either 5th or 6th in the three succeeding SEA Games.iv
Olympolitik and the Philippines
Is economic strength the main determinant of sporting success? Tordecilla’s talk puts forward this thesis. He cited Manny Pangilinan’s (MVP) support for Gilas and the Azkals which led both teams to sustainability. His other champion teams bear the same mark: San Beda, Ateneo, Talk n Text, NLEX, and Loyola-Meralco.
However, Zaki Laïdi’s essay, Olympolitikv, regards financial muscle only as a piece in the four factors that influence Olympic power. He argues that Olympic success is not only determined by economic status but also by population size, sports traditions, and sports policy. He states that the factors should not be taken separately in explaining a country’s Olympic success.
The population argument, on the surface, appears reasonable. After all, top calibre athletes are easier to find in a big pool compared to a small puddle. However, several empirical cases interrogate this assumption. Laïdi cites India’s Olympic failure despite a bursting population and Australia’s success even with a modest populace.
The sporting context of Southeast Asia presents a similar case. The Philippines’ population of 95 million does not translate to performance in regional sporting events. Smaller populations with the exception of Indonesia, including Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, all returned from London with medals. Also, though Vietnam did not win a medal in London, they, along with the four aforementioned nations, consistently trump the Philippines in the SEA Games and Asian Games. Indeed, the relationship between population power and sporting success merits further investigation.
Myths and traditions
The importance of sporting traditions is more resonant in the Philippine case. Philippine sports traditions mostly revolve around the country’s obsession with basketball, even with Filipinos’ generally short physical statures. Tordecilla discusses how a particular basketball game led to the entrenchment of a PBA team’s fanbase for generations to come, as well as the Filipino love for the athletic underdog. Tordecilla narrates the historic 1985 PBA game between Northern Consolidated Cement (NCC)—then the powerhouse all-amateur Philippine national team—and the Robert Jaworski-led Ginebra. With NCC taking an early big lead, the Gin Kings were dealt a blow when Jaworski’s lip got busted due to a wayward elbow. To the shock of the 10,000 people at Ultra, the skipper was rushed to Medical City for treatment, only to return in the 4th quarter to lead Ginebra to a comeback victory. Although the 1985 season ended with NCC being crowned as champions, Ginebra and Jaworski proved that one need not win a trophy to be considered a winner—indeed a message for fans and sports officials alike. Tordecilla further posits that this was the start of Ginebra’s “never-say-die” reputation. A compelling narrative, if not heroic mythmaking out of underdogs, has been a crucial component in constructing a sporting tradition of basketball in the Philippines.
Though one cannot deny the influence of American colonization to the Philippines’ addiction to the sport, it seems more socially-constructed through such historical accounts. In fact, Tordecilla further states that the Filipino love for basketball was gradually reinforced throughout the decades preceding the 1985 game, a point shared in a column by Rafe Bartholomew, author of “Pacific Rims.” Tordecilla refers to the championship performances of Philippine teams against much taller and more athletic competition in international tournaments in the 50s and 60s, as well as the epic rivalry between Toyota and Crispa in the early days of the PBA. Batholomew, meanwhile, narrates how the sport has become part of Filipino culture and daily life since its introduction by the Americans.vi Such may explain why baseball and American football do not enjoy such widespread public support in the Philippines, despite being well-entrenched in American sporting traditions.
In addition to Tordecilla’s point, there are other home-grown sporting traditions. Former PSC Chairman Philip Juico shared in a column how Far Eastern University’s boxing squad helped secure a silver in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.vii Icons such as Nonito Donaire, and Efren Reyes also further embed an already strong tradition in boxing and billiards. Laïdi mentions that traditions can be created, and this is seen in the increasing popularity of Chieffy Caligdong and the UAAP’s volleybelles that hopefully would pave the way for new traditions.
Thus remains the area of sports policy, which may be the most important factor in cultivating sporting traditions, and consequently sporting success. Indeed, having a properly formulated, long-term, and stakeholder-supported policy can enable a country to harness the potential provided by its population, institutionalize sport traditions, and ensure that limited budgets are productively utilized.
At present, it is unfortunate that accountability issues continue to plague Philippine sports, preventing the implementation of a sports development strategy. Sports, becomes a palakasan of personal interests—its power to unify and empower through friendly competition is corrupted and lost.
Such turf wars is an affront not only to the athletes, but also to the larger public who, despite limited involvement as fans, are stakeholders and constituents, since they are represented by these people in the sporting arena. Suffice it to say, the power struggles are unsportsmanlike and undemocratic. After all, the principles of inclusive participation, deferment of individual gain for the good of the whole and utmost respect for rules are as much elements of sports as they are for democracy.
One can take as an example the 2005 suspension of the Philippines from all international basketball competitions due to a long-brewing leadership row within the now-dissolved Basketball Association of the Philippines. The crisis was only resolved in 2007 when all stakeholders got together and formed a new national federation—the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP).viii Building on the momentum, the SBP institutionalized the country’s basketball program from the grassroots, all the way to the national team, culminating in the Philippines gaining 4th place in the 2011 FIBA Asia Championships, winning the 2012 William Jones Cup, as well as the bid to host the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship—the first time since 1973. In a show of unity for the 2013 tourney, Rain or Shine—current adversary of the MVP group’s Talk n Text in the PBA All-Filipino Cup Finals—has pledged to lend any of its players to the national team.ix It remains to be seen, however, whether the teams connected to the San Miguel group (SMC) would also commit theirs, since it has been hinted that SMC management has been prohibiting its players from joining the MVP-backed Smart-Gilas.x
How then to fix Philippine sports? Tordecilla suggests that we learn from basketball, seeing that the four factors that Laïdi mentions are already present in the system: sufficient funding, a wide base of talent, a strong tradition, and a clear policy implemented by competent officials. Using basketball as benchmark, the road to a good national sports program requires a solid playbook, and a prepared bench.
Playbook for success
A good plan is crucial. As such, the 2011-2016 Philippine Sports Roadmap is very much welcome.xi The roadmap focuses on ten sports with the most potential to yield positive results: boxing, taekwondo, athletics, swimming, wushu, archery, wrestling, bowling, weightlifting, and billiards. Still, the plan encompasses only a single presidential term. Contrast this with Singapore’s Vision 2030, which promotes sports among the youth, employees, competitive athletes, and senior citizens.xii
An argument can be made that national sports policy can be meaningfully connected to the Aquino administration’s national policy on public-private partnerships (PPP). Since PPPs have already been used for health and education facilities, and soon for heritage site restoration, the ten focus sports can profit from a well-designed PPP package. However, discretion must still be exercised in soliciting private sector support for athletic projects, as illustrated by the much-criticized commercialization of the Olympics.xiii At the local level, the collegiate leagues also serve as a caution, as every basket, timeout, crowd reaction, or any on- or off-court movement for that matter, is attached to a corporate sponsor.
The sixth man
Excellent leadership and a clear program would not be worth anything if there is no pipeline of talent to foster. As such, essential to ensuring the sustainability of a sports program are institutions such as the Philippine Sports Institute, the UP College of Human Kinetics, and the proposed Philippine High School for Sports. Thus, it is beneficial that their capacities as research and educational institutions be further improved. Sports medicine and sports psychology should also be promoted as viable careers, as the number of athletic professionals aside from coaches is quite few.
Ultimately, local competitions from the bottom, all the way to the collegiate and professional ranks, should be institutionalized and strengthened. Physical education programs, the Palarong Pambansa, and the Philippine Collegiate Champions League—expanded outside of basketball—present opportunities for growth. At the professional level, the rise of the United Football League and the opening of the Premier Volleyball League are welcome developments.
This is also where Tordecilla’s point on individual involvement comes into play. As a mediaman, Tordecilla advocates the stories of lesser-known athletes so they may be given government and corporate sponsor attention. He thus calls on sports fans to share sports stories as well. He gives the example of Joneza Mae Sistutuedo who broke records in the Palarong Pambansa running barefoot, and the story of Rudy del Rosario and Jeepney Football Club, who, through social media coverage, were able to get sponsors to send the Philippine team to the Homeless World Cup.
Sports for development
It may be said that contrasting the Philippines with more affluent countries is illogical, given prosperity and size disparities. Indeed, if statistics were consulted, the most successful sporting nations have historically been the wealthiest. Nevertheless, success remains possible even with economic difficulties, as evidenced by the African nations and even Afghanistan since Beijing 2008. Sports, ultimately, is about transcending the limitations brought about by physical statures, economic barriers, and political and religious beliefs.
In the palaksan for limited public funds, it is understandable for government to focus on the more “practical” concerns of national economic development. However, the country seems to be missing out on another crucial element. Broadly speaking, when a national sports project is initiated, managed well, and treated as a key component of a strategy to improve lives, the inevitable by-product is a strong sense of national pride and identity. This intense affinity to the notion of nationhood can in turn provide the literal and figurative capital needed to work on the so-called “more pressing problems.”
As such, the unifying power of sports cannot be brushed aside. Absent effective efforts to instil discipline, love for country, and respect, sports development is probably the least-divisive option. At the micro level, one can look at the runs promoting an advocacy, soldiers teaching football in conflict-areas, bikers refurbishing a remote highland school, or surfers conducting relief ops in flood-stricken places to see sport’s unifying power. Imagine the effects if such civic spirit can be utilized on a larger scale towards nation-building or safeguarding institutions.
The challenge, of course, is how to get our gameplan together, both in the private and public spheres. After all, when the final buzzer sounds, an end to the palakasan is what everyone wants.