Whatever the outcome of the Sochi Winter Games was, there was only one real champion there. That is Michael Christian Martinez.
I saw his performance that got him a place in the finals, and while it was a long way from the top of the heap, it was a thing to behold. It was truly Olympian, it was truly world-class.
I’m by no means knowledgeable in figure skating though I’ve seen winning performances in it over ESPN and Star Sports and thrilled to them. You can’t watch the best of them without being awed by the consummate skill with which the movements are executed. Though like in any sport, or game, or contest, at their very best they make you forget the striving, the effort, to transcend the limitations of the human body, and make you see only the beauty of them, the artistry of them, the magic of them.
Martinez’s performance did so. He executed his moves fluidly, fluently, like someone who had been doing this since he was born, like someone who was born to it. Skating/dancing through the ice, he glided and leaped and spun with grace and precision. A brilliant debut for one so young—he was the youngest contestant in men’s figure skating, his youthfulness emphasized by his still boyish, or waifish, looks at 17. An improbable feat for one who came from a country whose only idea of ice was the thing that came out of a refrigerator.
That was what made him the real winner of the Sochi Games whatever the official tally revealed. We’ve seen a number of times in the Olympics how the crowd has risen to its feet and cheered not for the one who is running ahead of the pack but for the one who has stumbled and fallen, picked himself up, and is determinedly, agonizingly, hobbling toward the finish line. Those are moments that inspire and bring tears to the eyes. For good reason: They are the very essence of the Olympic spirit.
Martinez did not exactly stumble and fall; on the contrary he acquitted himself marvelously, enough to give the other contestants a run for their money, or legs. But he supplied a variation thereof. Everything was stacked against him. The Philippines producing a world-class talent in ice skating is about as likely as Saudi Arabia producing a world-class talent in wave surfing. Martinez himself learned the sport only at the skating rink of an SM mall, where he discovered he had a natural aptitude and artistic sensibility for it. Before long, he was skating no longer for recreation, as he himself tells it, but for competition. Talent is as much a curse as a gift, and it drove him to want to excel in it. It drove him to dream to be great in it one day. A thing perfectly within the horizon: He’s just 17 and has the whole world, now quite literally, ahead of him.
Of course he never got the support he deserved, which makes his feat all the more marvelous and inspirational. Only SM had the vision or imagination—or the business acumen to see that a million bucks or so is a small investment in exchange for the huge advertising potential he presented—to back him. But the criticism of the sports bodies for not being there for him is a little unfair. Who in God’s name would have thought Martinez could get this far? Had the sports bodies lavished money on him and he hadn’t succeeded as famously as he did, everyone would now be asking them: “What were you thinking? Support a Pinoy for the Winter Games?!”
But Martinez never gave up. He never thought his dream was a batty one, never mind that it wasn’t one to capture the imagination of sponsors, mind only that it wasn’t one to capture the imagination of the community in which he lived. Indeed, never mind that it wouldn’t capture the imagination of his community, mind only that it would lend itself to derision and denigration: What was he thinking?
He never gave up, he never thought these things. Instead, he exerted himself to scrounge up funds from family and friends quite apart from the stray support he could get from sponsors. More than that, he exerted himself to become the best that he could be, training in the United States, though his finances limited his use of facilities only to a few hours each day. And still more than that, he exerted himself until his body ached, so that in the end he could gracefully, magically, glide his way toward the finish line.
That is the Olympic spirit, the one that has been reduced to the commonplace but still profoundly true, saying that it’s not how you win the game, it’s how you play the game. Martinez has played the game beautifully, long before he stepped onto the ice at Sochi. In his capacity to dream, to see things that are not, and ask, “Why not?” In his refusal to be daunted by the indifference and derision of a cynical neighborhood. In his resolve instead to conquer every paucity and scarcity and adversity that came his way.
In the process teaching us a thing or two not just about the game of skating but about the game of life. Which is that winners are those who dream big, not those who settle for the pwede na, who complain that they do not have the means to reach for things beyond their grasp, who are content only to inherit the “legacy of smallness,” as Nick Joaquin put it, to refer to our lack of epic striving. Which is that winners are those who are prepared to back their dreams with dogged zeal and hard work, and not those who moan and whine that this is too much effort for too little gain, this is too much expenditure of energy for too dubious a result, there must be an easier way to make a living, there must be a cozier way to make your mark.
Whatever the outcome of our national mind games is, there is only one real champion there. He is Michael Christian Martinez, and tribe.
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