Equipped for Rio?
Now that the curtains have fallen on the Fiba Olympic qualifying tournament, we can stand back and assess the performance of Gilas Pilipinas without the emotion pushed forward by a passionate home crowd and the gracious, glowing words of encouragement from world-class rivals about the marked improvement of the Philippines’ basketball program.
Here are the facts: The Philippines is still far from the level it needs to be to compete consistently against the giants—literally—of the sport. The beloved national basketball team’s dream of making it to the Olympics will remain a dream for the meantime. A return to the world stage via Fiba’s restructured World Cup will be easier to swing, because the tournament opens more slots to Asia than the Olympics does. With only one continental berth available for the Summer Games, it is clear that it will take some time before the Philippines participates in Olympic basketball.
At the very least, Rio de Janeiro is out. And Tokyo 2020 might be a tad too optimistic at this point.
Far be it from us, however, to discourage the privately funded Gilas Pilipinas from continuing to seek its place in the Olympic Games. After all, the group that bankrolls the basketball program is free to set whatever goals it wants for the team. The point, which isn’t the only one we will be making here, is that the return on hundreds of millions of pesos in investment (if you count the money also spent on hosting prestigious tournaments like the OQT) will be far better if Gilas Pilipinas focuses on continuing to be
an Asian elite and at the same time tries to get into the qualification-friendly World Cup.
Yet, the Olympics is well within the sights of other Filipino athletes a few of whom have a shot at a medal. So far, for Rio this year, 12 Filipino athletes have made the grade for the Summer Games.
These 12 athletes have slim-to-none chances of finding the Holy Grail—an Olympic gold medal—with the best chance favoring the weight-classified events that allow pure talent and skill to trump physical edges. That trains the spotlight on the Philippines’ boxing and taekwondo bets. And it is good to note that the war chest into which the basketball program dips its hand is the same one that bankrolls boxing and taekwondo.
But these sports need more than just the same amount of financing that Gilas Pilipinas gets. They also need the same support lavished on the national basketball team. Congress was willing to squeeze the Filipinization of Andray Blatche into its packed schedule. (An aside: The practice is common among sports heavyweights, not just basketball. Even top football countries boost their stock with naturalized players.) Imagine the training opportunities for other national athletes from a government willing to put its time and resources at their disposal.
The country proved it could rally behind the pipe dream of an overwhelmingly outmatched national basketball team. Imagine how much more engaged and inspired the Rio-bound athletes would be if they receive the same show of love.
Even long-shot athletes like hurdler Eric Cray, weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz and long jumper Marestella
Torres deserve the same kind of support that Gilas Pilipinas gets because all they may have is a whisper of a chance (but a chance nonetheless).
Basketball, meanwhile, is officially out of it right now. Still, Gilas Pilipinas’ financiers have every right to funnel their cash into the national basketball program. And the fans have every right to passionately support the athlete or team after their own heart. No way are they going to be deprived of that choice. What can be done is to point them to a reality that they should now recognize:
Basketball’s dream of the Olympics has dissipated, but that same dream lives in the other Filipino athletes who are traveling to Rio to win medals and honor for their motherland. This daring dozen needs everyone’s support, to ensure that they are fully equipped and ready to make the best out of that single shot at attaining Olympic glory.
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