Palaro: Stars from the grassroots
Most athletes spend their lives overcoming adversity.
Some have compelling narratives, with anecdotes that develop into more than mere footnotes to their engrossing life stories.
The young Manny Pacquiao, in a bold bid to knock poverty out cold, stowed away in a Manila-bound ship — a journey that would climax in his becoming one of the greatest boxers in the world.
Fueled by necessity, Mary Joy Tabal ran to and from school, laying the foundation of the athlete who would eventually qualify for the Olympics.
The Palarong Pambansa, which was held on April 15-21 in Vigan City, teems with such stories that these have become almost predictable reportage: the farmer’s son who runs barefoot in the hope that the finish line would lead him to lucrative opportunities, the dutiful daughter who dreams that her prize money would give her family precious respite from the scourge of poverty …
Such stories, often reduced to subplots beside the medal chase, illustrate why the Palaro is a vital socioeconomic cog in the nation-building wheel.
In its essence, the Palaro is a grassroots sporting event aimed at discovering fresh talent from the provinces. Thus, a sizeable number of the spectators at the grandstands are national and big-city school coaches and scouts armed with scholarships and other incentives as they compete with one another to grab their sport’s Next Big Thing.
But that very essence bolsters the role of the Palaro — and sports in general — in helping the country deal with chronic poverty, one successful athlete at a time. And it’s not just the windfall that a single athlete receives that matters; there is also the trickle-down effect.
Tabal has used her newfound resources to train young runners in Cebu. Her fellow Rio Olympian, the weightlifting silver medalist Hidilyn Diaz, has allocated part of her financial jackpot to open a training center for promising lifters in her hometown in Zamboanga.
The two women not only open opportunities for young athletes to make it big but also provide jobs for coaches, nutritionists and trainers. (Pacquiao, of course, is a one-man welfare department who, ironically, embodied the term “public servant” before he even sought and won public office.
More than the stories of doles that have made queues at his General Santos City mansion an everyday sight, his business ventures have provided jobs for a considerable number of people.)
A cursory check of the star athletes in volleyball and basketball — many of whom were discovered at the Palarong Pambansa — reveal a promising reality: Sports have become a major force in poverty alleviation. Where would these once impoverished individuals be now without sports, without the Palaro?
Thus, there is an even direr need for the government to provide more funding for sports development, especially at the grassroots — and especially because a change in the Philippine Olympic Committee leadership has led to renewed vigor and interest among business leaders to pump financial resources into sports.
It is the government’s turn to step up. The Philippines will host the Southeast Asian Games next year, and once again the heart-wrenching disparity between the country and its neighbors in terms of expenditure for athletics will come to fore.
And perhaps the reason for that disparity is this: For so long, sports have been viewed through the lens of national pride — that we are investing merely to bask in the glory of feel-good results or dramatic efforts in international arenas, and to help lift the national morale. Indeed, that perspective makes it hard to justify the allocation of a bigger part of the national budget to sports.
But stories from the Palarong Pambansa, where young, still-nameless athletes try to sprint, jump, box, and swim their way out of poverty, show that investing in sports can lead to more tangible, measurable returns. And maybe when viewed through such a prism, the government will seriously rethink its longstanding neglect of and apathy toward the national sporting program.
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