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If there’s an area where presumptive President-elect Rodrigo Duterte could make a difference—and leave a lasting legacy—it would be in sports development.

As with the Philippines’ economic development, sports once saw a golden age up to the 1950s. The Rizal Memorial Stadium was well known in the region, and we had basketball teams that made it to the Olympics.

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But through the years we’ve neglected most sports except basketball. Traces of our past glory in sports are still to be found in the Rizal Memorial Stadium, but the grounds and its facilities’ deterioration reflect our national sports situation.

I thought about all this last Saturday during the closing ceremonies of Season 78 of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP).  The association is composed of eight universities—seven private and one public—and has, since 1938, organized inter-university competitions.  In the last season, it had 15 different sports.

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The hosting of the events rotates each year; this last season, the host was the University of the Philippines, the only public school in the association. It was a chance for me to see, up close, how UAAP worked, and I have to say I’m impressed.  There’s a tiny secretariat of two staff who have held the fort pretty much, depending on the host university to provide additional logistical support.

Funds come in large part from a contract with ABS-CBN, who gets exclusive broadcasting rights. Ticket sales are important, too, in generating some income. But it’s still the universities’ own funds that are crucial for the teams, with the alumni playing a major role.

UP has often been at a disadvantage, having less funds, plus varsity players being under greater pressure to keep up with UP’s grueling academic requirements, in addition to sports. Fortunately, we are seeing a surge of UP alumni support with nowhere to go but up. The alumni are now a nonprofit group registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission.  (Yes, that was meant as a plug.)

Among the UAAP teams, men’s basketball gets most of the attention. But over the years, UAAP has pushed for greater recognition of the other sports.  UAAP has shown how inter-university cooperation, together with support from media, can promote sports. Indeed, through the years we’ve seen how UAAP sports events, other than basketball, have been drawing larger crowds each year.

The most dramatic change has been in women’s volleyball. According to ABS-CBN’s sports director Dino Laurena, the turnout for the final game of women’s volleyball last April was the largest ever in UAAP history, even exceeding that of men’s basketball championships. Significant, too, is how the women’s volleyball teams’ fans are composed of entire families.

People often forget that UAAP has a juniors division, meaning, high schools competing for a smaller range of sports, but these are important, too, because top players here move into the senior teams which, in turn, could lead them to professional teams (for example, the PBA for basketball). After the UP women’s football team won the championship, I met with some of the parents and they said it was crucial to expose young girls to football, as early as grade school.

Even as amateur players, UAAP’s varsity players also get to compete regionally, like in the Asean games.  We’ve also had players qualifying for the Olympics team.

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It’s the participation in these international events where we see the need to provide even more support to our varsity players because our neighbors are working double time to move forward.  China now even has a football academy, an entire school devoted to developing football players. Football is big, too, among our Southeast Asian neighbors.

More than winning in competition, though, sports development has to be seen for its higher goals. We speak of giving our youth recreational activities that develop both body and mind.  Visit our urban poor communities and you’ll find young people just lounging around, or using makeshift internet cafes that charge a peso a minute. The occasional basketball court is mainly for older teenage males.

Sports means a healthier youth, and a healthier nation.  Sports development becomes even more crucial with the epidemic of obesity among our young, which could translate into a higher incidence of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and metabolic disorders, the cost of treatment of which taxpayers will pay for.

UP’s coaches tell me of the problems they face trying to change the athletes’ unhealthy diets and lifestyles. There’s almost a vicious cycle here—to a large extent, our neglect of children’s nutrition means fewer young people becoming athletes, and if they do, they are handicapped by being shorter and less fit than our neighbors’ athletes.

Sports and values

Beyond the physical, sports are important for developing discipline. I am always amazed by our athletes’ dedication, putting in long hours to rigorous training.

Sports, too, is teaching the young about fairness, about winning and losing graciously. Much of my involvement in sports has been boosting morale, rushing over to console a team that lost, or even more painfully, that narrowly missed a victory, assuring them they’re still the best players as far as UP is concerned; or when a team does win, going overboard with celebrations.

The men’s and women’s football teams’ championships last May 5 were truly occasions for celebrations, to a large extent because it showed how important motivation and inspiration can be. The teams were so driven about playing for Rogie Maglinas, a men’s football team player who died a few weeks earlier after a short but courageous battle against cancer; the whole time, he was supported by his teammates providing almost 24/7 vigils and companionship.

It’s these values of team play and camaraderie that sports can foster.  And our experiences in UAAP, with ABS-CBN coverage, tell us that athletes can become celebrities, too; and, unlike showbiz types, these star athletes can promote more positive views of looking at life, and of living.

The Duterte team includes Pia Cayetano, who has been a champion for sports, including as author of a law that protects the rights of student athletes. I hope Pia, herself an athlete, will push sports higher up in the national agenda, and get physical education to be a serious part of the educational system, from kindergarten onward.

Let’s change the landscape in our towns and cities. Instead of more cockpits, let’s have more sports facilities and, let’s not forget, not just basketball courts for males but a whole range of facilities for both males and females, complete with staff and facilities that promote healthier lifestyles to go with the sports.

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TAGS: Rizal Memorial Stadium, Rodrigo Duterte, Rogie Maglinas, sports, UAAP, University Athletic Association of the Philippines
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