Trouble in the SEA Games
In retrospect, last year’s unveiling of the SEA Games logo — a bunch of rings that seemed to be hastily and amateurishly designed — was a foreshadowing of the forthcoming trouble. (As it turns out, you can judge a sporting event by its logo.) Alan Peter Cayetano — the face of the Games, if not its mascot — defended it at the time as a “work in progress,” but like the rest of the multibillion peso affair, it seems that it would remain that way.
The second harbinger was the cauldron that looked ordinary in all aspects except for its cost: a whopping P55 million. Amid our athletes’ grievances of underfunding, such an Imeldific monument would understandably ignite outrage, but Cayetano was truculent in his defense, calling it a “work of art.”
Beyond these spectacular mediocrities, more serious red flags lay on the organization of the Games itself. Allegations of corruption, raised by President Duterte himself in July, rank along the plight of displaced Aeta communities among the issues that Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee — in fact, a private foundation chaired by Cayetano — and other involved agencies have yet to satisfactorily answer.
And then there were complaints from athletes that they were being booted out of the Games because of their outspokenness over alleged irregularities. For karateka James de los Santos and skateboarder Arianne Mae Trinidad, both of whom aired their grievances on social media, it must have been heartbreaking to be undone not by opponents but by internal politics.
Finally, when the athletes started arriving, so did the embarrassing reports: of training rooms that look like unfurnished condo units, press conference venues that look like crime scenes, and even restroom cubicles with two toilet bowls. Not even the coach of our women’s football team, Let Dimzon, can keep herself from complaining about the breakfast of “rice and kikiam and egg.”
One would think that President Duterte would have used the SEA Games to boost his symbolic capital, the way governments all over the world use sporting events to promote their countries: think of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing or last year’s World Cup in Russia. The SEA Games may not be as grand a stage, but even Myanmar used the 2013 SEA Games to present a modern face with considerable success.
Perhaps Mr. Duterte and his allies did imagine the Games to be a showcase of “best and brightest.” “Hosting the SEA Games will show the world how far the Philippines has come, especially during the Duterte administration,” boasted Bong Go just a few months ago.
Alas, the incompetence and corruption of his people has undone such grandiose visions: How can we aspire to be the “next Singapore” when, as far as sporting events are concerned, we cannot even be the “next Myanmar”?
I sincerely hope, for the sake of the country, that the SEA Games will have some redeeming qualities as it unfolds, and that the athletes will take back the show that rightfully belongs to them. Already, there are welcome signs of pathetic posters being replaced by much better ones, organizational changes being made, and rescues (e.g. by the Department of Tourism and private companies) being staged.
Toward this end, I am sympathetic to warnings about the negative effect of magnifying every fault in the Games at the expense of highlighting the competition itself. Rightfully, any investigation will have to come after it’s over. Any form of fake news — e.g. an image showing the Philippine flag being used as a tablecloth — does not help anyone.
But at the same time, we cannot gloss over the gross incompetence that goes beyond the inevitable glitches of any competition. You do not build a cubicle with two toilet bowls and not expect people to raise howls. You do not serve kikiam for breakfast, let alone pork to Muslim athletes, and not expect to receive some scalding tea in return.
Besides, I do not hold with those who say that supporting our athletes means turning a blind eye to the failures and irregularities that ultimately undermine their own futures. If we are to “win as one,” then we must keep calling out the corruption and incompetence that have long held back our sports programs.
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