As first impressions go, we’re f—ked. The 30th Southeast Asian Games have yet to officially commence, but the facepalm-inducing developments of the past few days are generating the not-unfounded fear that the Philippines’ fourth hosting of the friendship games may end up remembered as an epic fail.
The complaints came first in trickles, starting with the football teams from
Timor-Leste, Myanmar and Cambodia disclosing on social media that they had to wait for hours at the airport for transport to their designated hotels, only for the Timor-Leste team to be dropped off at the wrong hotel, and the Cambodian team ending up sleeping on chairs and on the floor of a function room as they waited for hours to be checked into their hotel rooms.
The fact that foreign participants were compelled to make noise about these mishaps seemed to open the floodgates; a torrent of similar complaints soon rushed in from all quarters, from weary, confused volunteers who said they had yet to receive clear instructions about their assignments, to foreign and local media who had to jump through hoops to get their IDs, and finally from athletes, coaches and delegation heads themselves. Their resolute, detailed protests shine an unforgiving light on the utter incompetence being displayed so far by the body behind the embarrassing mess, the Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee (Phisgoc) chaired by Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano.
Juliana Seow, chef de mission for Team Singapore, sent Phisgoc COO Ramon Suzara a terse letter on Nov. 24 urgently calling for Phisgoc’s “urgent and immediate attention” to address the dire situation their team was facing that she said has left the athletes “badly affected and not able to prepare for the games effectively.” There was insufficient halal food—required by Muslim athletes not just of Singapore but also other teams such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei—and “very limited” food options, according to Seow.
Let Dimzon, coach of the Philippine women’s football team, set the internet on fire when she disclosed that the teams had rice, egg and kikiam for breakfast, a woefully insufficient source of calories and nutrition needed for the grueling football matches.
As Malaysia and Myanmar played the first football match, the game went on without an electronic scoreboard, in a venue—the Rizal Memorial Stadium—
that was clearly unfinished, with metal scaffoldings still in place, dugouts not fully fitted out, electrical works ongoing and some air-conditioning units yet to be installed.
Phisgoc did apologize for the early snafus and vowed “to do better,” but as the grievances continued to pile up at breakneck speed day after day, deeply staining this country’s vaunted reputation for hospitality and graciousness, Cayetano has taken to alternately pleading human frailty as a defense (“Tao lang, hindi perfect”—We’re just human, we’re not perfect) and blaming others, specifically Sen. Franklin Drilon and the Senate, for the alleged delays in the Games budget that affected the preparations for the event.
The government has had more than four years, from the time the Philippines agreed to host the games in July 2015, to buckle down and prepare for the biennial meet; the Duterte administration drew up an ambitious plan to have the games played in competition venues spread out in 23 cities across Luzon—a logistical nightmare even on paper—and allocated a P6-billion budget for it. But, along the way, the newly formed Phisgoc, said to be a private foundation but nevertheless bristling with a passel of government officials led by Cayetano, managed not only to corner a big chunk of the budget (P1.5 billion), but to exempt the money from required bidding rules, by categorizing it as “financial assistance” from the government. Ironically, tapping Phisgoc was supposedly to speed things up and make the Games’ handling more efficient. The delay in the 2019 national budget, on the other hand, can be traced to congressmen saddling it with their pork-barrel insertions, which the Senate scrutinized and even President Duterte had threatened to veto.
The budget alone would not explain the basic foul-ups bedeviling the pre-Games days; the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF), for instance, disclosed that they had duly reminded the organizers in a meeting to ensure that halal food was served to participants from Muslim countries, but nothing more was heard of it afterwards and “pinagpasa-pasahan kami (we were given the runaround),” said Dimapuno Alonto Datu Ramos Jr., NCMF director for external relations. The mortifying result—among many other colossal embarrassments that are threatening to make the 2019 Sea Games an enduring national shame for the Philippines—has now made headlines across the region.
Hopefully, all these kinks will be ironed out to the satisfaction of all participants.
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