Bet early on our athletes
There was, at the start, a well-founded fear that the enduring image of the 30th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games would be an overpriced cauldron and the culture of corruption and chaos it represented.
The exorbitant architectural object of debate, keeper of the SEA Games flame, highlighted everything that could go wrong early into the country’s hosting.
But sports officials held steady in their belief that as long as they could keep misfortune reined in, as long as they could get the Games running close to the blueprint they drew up, the tales of athletic struggle and triumph that would emerge from the biennial meet would overrun all the negative narratives.
They were right. Not so much that it justified Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, the chair of the Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee (Phisgoc), turning his closing pontification into a gloat-fest. They were right in that if you let athletes — Filipino athletes in particular — do their thing, they would hog the spotlight.
It is a light, after all, that should shine on no one else — self-indulgent speeches notwithstanding.
When John Chicano and the national triathlon team obliterated their foes and Agatha Wong delicately unfurled into slow graceful movements to win the taijiquan gold in women’s wushu, the country’s medal engine hummed to life, churning out gold after gold all the way to the end of competitions.
By then, the Philippines had run away with the overall title after hoarding 149 gold medals, 117 silvers and 121 bronzes for a total of 387 across 56 sports.
The tales of heroism spun from refurbished vintage venues like the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex in Manila to spanking new arenas like those in New Clark City spoke of athletes like Carlos Yulo, who reminded everyone what gymnastics is; Hidilyn Diaz, who breezed through her weightlifting contest; EJ Obiena, who earned a shot at being the face of contemporary athletics the way Lydia de Vega-Mercado was during her prime; and Margielyn Didal, who used every podium ceremony as a platform to speak out for her sport.
There was also Roger Casugay, the surfer who restored people’s faith in humanity by ignoring his own golden bid to rescue a competitor in danger. There was the women’s basketball team, who siphoned attention off the highly popular men’s squad by giving the country its first women’s 5×5 crown in history. And the men’s volleyball team, whose silver medal carried golden implications — newfound interest in the men’s side of the sport.
So many heroes. So many goosebumps over repeated renditions of the national anthem, a staple for every gold medal ceremony.
But was the collective accomplishment of the athletes, this massive gold rush that wasn’t tainted by accusations of hometown decisions, as good as it gets?
Better yet, what next?
When the country last hosted the SEA Games, it ran away with the overall title, too. But what followed was a steady plummet with each passing edition of the regional Olympics. After 2005’s 113-gold haul, the country’s collection in the next six editions before this year’s hosting was 41, 38, 36, 29, 29, 24. After 2005’s first-place finish, the country could do no better than sixth before this year’s SEA Games.
There has to be a lesson learned there.
More importantly, in the four times the country hosted the SEA Games, this marks only the second time that it will be followed by an Olympic year. After the 1991 meet, the country sent 26 athletes to the Barcelona Olympics. Its lone souvenir? A bronze from boxer Roel Velasco.
This year, the country is already assured of two Olympic slots — each a strong medal hope. There’s pole vaulter Obiena, who is close to matching the last bronze medal mark of the Olympics, and Yulo, a world champion who is suddenly being spoken of as a golden hope.
Diaz is close to qualifying, too. And as a silver medalist, she is being looked upon to deliver. Didal is already in the mix of the skateboarding Olympic roster. All she has to do is hold her position through the next qualifying tournaments. And the country’s national boxers, who collected seven SEA Games golds, are priming for as many berths as they can tab.
SEA Games gold medalists will be rewarded handsomely, with a chunk of the financial windfall coming from the government. And with shining medals making for good photo ops, expect even more people — politicians mostly — to open their wallets. Sports, after all, has not only been hyper-modernized and overcommercialized, it has also been unfortunately politicized.
But if people are going to leech every drop of political brownie point they can off athletes — whose performances and their afterglow have postponed scrutiny on the massive spending for the Games — then let’s urge them to keep those wallets open.
Rewards may be great motivators for future performances. But even better? Betting on our gallant athletes before they even get to compete. They’ll need every bit of available financial help for their Olympic bids.
Now, about that cauldron.
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