HOWIE SEE IT: The Waiting Game

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By Atty. Howie Calleja

The next few weeks will be the longest, most anxiety-inducing weeks for some of the top athletes in the country. Two boxers, in particular, are waiting to hear if their bid for the upcoming Summer Olympic games will be successful; years of training and previous success in regional competitions will have to be enough for them, as it will all come down to rankings. Because of the recent cancellation of the final Olympic qualifiers for Filipino boxing, due to safety issues and time constraints, the International Olympic Committee Boxing Task Force (BTF) will have to rely on world rankings – and announce the list of qualifiers next month. The two Filipino boxers, Nesthy Petecio, and Carlo Paalam, are definitely champions in their own right, but have been waiting, for more than a year now, to find out if they will be included in the official roster of Team Philippines.

No one can deny their talent, grit, and perseverance, especially as they have continued to train over the past year, despite the uncertainty. They, along with other athletes who have already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, deserve all the respect and support the country can give. What then, is the state of Philippine sports? And how are we assisting them so that they can achieve the best chance of success?

One cannot forget how we lost a chess champion in Wesley So. Now playing for the United States, his first international win for the Philippines in the 2012 Summer Universiade was likely the catalyst for his change of alliance. The lack of support and monetary incentives following that major win led the country to lose a grandmaster, who, just last week, outwitted the reigning world chess champion. But did we learn our lesson with So?

Though we have, over the past four and a half years been celebrating the success of Hidilyn Diaz since her historic win in the 2016 Rio Olympics, it is impossible to forget her comments about her training allowance being drastically reduced prior to the competition. From being expected to work on P9,600 pesos a month, we almost lost the opportunity for the first ever Olympic medal from a Filipino woman – and the person who ended a twenty year drought for the country.

Certainly, after both So and Diaz’s individual success, we’ve learned our lesson? Not yet it seems. Teenage tennis superstar Alex Eala has had her own struggles with the country’s sports governing body, which was brought into the spotlight over the past year. After her successful bout in the Rafael Nadal Academy World Tennis Tour, and after becoming the first Filipina Grand Slam champion, the Philippine Sports Commission tried to claim they granted a total of P4.5 million pesos to the family as travel funds and compensation for her trainings and tournaments. Her family’s vehement denial of the claims should have sparked a larger investigation into what is happening in the world of Philippine sports, but instead we’ve put the burden on our Filipino athletes to persevere. The Filipinos’ “resiliency” is, once again, the champion of the story.

These three athletes are obvious examples of athletes who reached success despite the lack of support. But it shouldn’t come to this. Their talent was developed by their own perseverance, and yet we claim their wins as our own. How then, can we continue to improve the state of Philippine sports?

The answer will always be grassroots sports programs. While there have certainly been headways into developing budding young athletes, like the Philippine High School for Sports being developed in New Clark City, there is still much to be done. Particularly, it is time now to shift our focus as a nation, and indeed our resources, towards sports that the Filipino can compete with on a world stage. After sending teams to the Olympics for 96 years, we have yet to win the illusive gold medal. While we certainly have a chance this year, our hopes for a gold medal are largely hinged on three athletes in particular: pole-vaulter EJ Obiena, gymnast Carlos Yulo, and weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz. These incredible athletes compete in sports that the average Filipino might not watch every weekend, but does that mean they deserve the support necessary for them to focus on training? It is no wonder that we have only clinched ten medals over the past century, when national athletes from all over the world are given the coaching, infrastructure, and wellness programs to build champions.

Though basketball and volleyball are certainly entertaining -and those athletes also deserve respect and support- we’ve turned the leagues into the forefront of Philippine sports, losing the big picture. We must continue developing young athletes like Alex Eala, and put resources towards funding talent from all sports, even those considered “less commercial”, lest we lose the next Hidilyn Diaz.

As the Tokyo Olympics look to be on track to start in July, the number of Philippine athletes preparing, and even those unsure about their ticket, must be given the resources necessary to compete on an international level. Coaching, equipment, nutritional food, wellness programs, and allowance are all essential to continue developing them. We cannot wait for them to win the gold medal for us, and then claim success. Rather, let us invest in our athletes and make this a win for the entire country.

The waiting game continues for a few of our top boxers, as they wait to hear if their bid for the Olympics is successful, but we cannot wait to develop the next group of Philippine champions. The race has long started, and we are barely off the starting line. It is long time for Philippine sports to have their moment.