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10th in the world

/ 12:10 AM January 22, 2015

History will decide what role Filipino grandmaster Wesley So fleshed out in his switch of flag allegiance in the world of chess. Before we can look at this issue on hindsight, any debate on whether he is an athlete whose quest to fully achieve his full potential was pushed to a corner or an unpatriotic person who turned his back on the federation that honed him would be as pointless as it would be endless.

On one hand, of course it hurts both the Philippines’ pride and its sporting program that such a talented player could easily be poached by a superpower. So had been a source of pride for the Philippine chess program since he was a young teenager. That he will now be the toast of another country leaves us with a deep sense of loss and betrayal.

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On the other hand, So is an athlete committed to the pursuit of greatness and sporting immortality. It is he who suffers every sacrifice and, therefore, the decision to go for his place in his sport’s pantheon and to choose the manner by which he will achieve such a goal is inalienably his.

But hindsight is hardly needed when judging the manner by which we lost Wesley So to the United States.

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Politics and a culture of administrative ineptitude pushed him to the belief that his ultimate goal—to be a world champion—can only be achieved with the support of a program with access to bottomless funding.

After all, it wouldn’t have taken much apart from a little foresight and selfless action from sports officials to keep So wearing the national colors in international meets like the Olympiad. His decision to study in a country known for pilfering chess talents of different nationalities should have raised alarm bells among officials.

They could have sought corporate godfathers to fund So’s ambition—a realistic one, in our opinion. Didn’t skating officials manage to rally financial support for skater Michael Martinez by convincing corporations on his potential? And the national men’s basketball team (world ranking: 31) and national men’s football team (world ranking: 129) have benefactors willing to plunk millions of pesos on both squads in the hope of making them continental and regional powerhouses.

It wouldn’t have taken much to convince corporate sponsors to back So, who, as of this writing, is 10th in the world (eighth in live rankings), after having peaked at No. 6. He can only get better. He has proven his mettle against the heavyweights of the game—and he is only 21.

But all that is water under the bridge. Where So is concerned, we can latch on to a few strands of hope. The young man has told friends and critics alike that he will always be a Filipino and thus deserves nothing less than his country’s support. After all, we lavish love and praise for every success achieved by foreigners with Filipino lineage in tournaments of little national importance (think Erik Spoelstra). Why should it matter what flag So, a Filipino through and through, hoists if he becomes a world champion?

International chess rules don’t bar So from switching federations, so there is still hope that he will eventually go back to representing the Philippines in the future. If that happens, sports officials—hopefully new and selfless leaders this time—must be prepared. It doesn’t take grandmaster levels of genius to see the wisdom in allocating heavy funding for So. Millions of pesos are spent to naturalize basketball players who would not make it to the top 100 of their sport if ever such a list were made. Why not raise a fraction of that for a young potential world champion who is even now among the top 10 in the world?

More important, we should be ready to welcome So with open arms if and when he comes home. Already, there are reports that he may have been used as a pawn in power play within the US chess federation. If that’s true, and the young man becomes disillusioned with his current chosen federation, he may choose to leave it. If he succeeds in his bold ambition, he may decide to return. As acrimonious as the “divorce” has been, any reconciliation should be done with magnanimity and with little regard for past hurts.

The Philippines does not hold an impressive record in hunting for talent in the grassroots. That we stumbled upon a supernova such as So, only to lose him, speaks ill of our sporting infrastructure. Before history passes judgment on his action, let us hope that our officials learn from the bitter lessons it has already taught.

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TAGS: Chess, divorce, Grandmaster, Michael Martinez, Wesley So
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