Wesley So and other treasures
The roller-coaster ride that sports has taken recently seems to best capture the dilapidated condition of the Philippines’ athletic program.
Wesley So ruled the US chess championship and, in doing so, stretched his unbeaten run to 67 games. Before then, he triumphed in the Tata Steel chess tour-nament, in which the world’s best grand-masters participate. The Cavite-born wonder is now No. 2 in the world rankings.
Just over the weekend, Marlon Tapales surrendered his WBO bantamweight crown without even stepping into the ring, after failing to make the 118-pound limit for the division. His opponent, the Japanese Shohei Omori, branded Tapales—and rightly so—“unprofessional.” Tapales managed to salvage a measure of pride by eventually beating Omori in their bout via an 11th-round TKO. Still he flew home a king without a crown.
Somewhere in the middle of all these, the Palarong Pambansa opened under a cloud of troubling urgency.
These are three different stories. But if one were to write a work of fiction based on these stories, one would come up with a predictable conclusion neatly tied to a never-ending lament: The country badly needs a reinvigorated sports leadership, and that need will never be met given a Philippine Olympic Committee that continues to practice patronage politics.
Wesley So was once the pride of Philippine chess, and his development and nurture would have cost the Philippine Olympic Committee a fraction of what it spent hosting festivals for Asian Olympic officials. Thus, his eyes firmly on the prize of becoming the best in the world, So sought out a stronger program where his talent would not be neglected. He is now part of Team USA.
The young man’s current assault on the world chess rankings indicates that he will reach the summit in the not-too-distant future. And while he has always acknowledged his Philippine roots—he never fails to remind everyone that he has dual citizenship, that he is Filipino-American—there will be only one flag attached to his name when he becomes No. 1. And it won’t be the one with three stars and a sun.
How did we lose such a national treasure? Simple: neglect and indifference. Once upon a time, sports officials almost managed to push weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz into quitting her sport. Had it not been for her coach’s constant prodding, we would have lost a silver medalist in the Rio Olympics. You’d think Philippine officials would have learned from that, but no: They came so close to running—pun intended—top marathoner Mary Joy Tabal off the national team.
On a smaller scale, consider how Team Tapales handled the boxer’s title defense. Amid concern over excess pounds leading up to the weigh-in, his handlers kept insisting there was no problem. When they finally admitted that their ward was in danger of missing the grade, they subjected him to an intense crash diet that led observers to ask if he would have enough in the tank even if he made weight.
In a physically demanding and risky sport like boxing, making the weight should have been the easiest task on Team Tapales’ checklist. All his handlers needed to do was draw up a sound program for the boxer to follow. It took a burst of pride and the summoning of inner strength for Tapales to win the bout. But having failed at the scale, he was already stripped of the title—and the chance to keep it—before fight night.
And so here we are, with the Palarong Pambansa opening in the shadow of a worrying statistic: Fewer students are getting into sports. Who can blame them? While other countries nurture their national athletes the way they should be, ours are turned into pawns for personal ends. How will that encourage the young and talented to dream of representing flag and country in international competitions?
We may yet uncover other gems in the Palarong Pambansa: prodigious youngsters, athletes with a hunger that can be sated only by success on the world stage. But all that talent and capability will go to waste if we let uninspiring, overstaying leaders continue to control the national sports program.
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