Give our athletes a fighting chance

On the 27th SEA Games

Speech of Senator Pia S. Cayetano

August 12, 2013

 

Mr. President, distinguished colleagues, I rise today on a matter of personal and collective privilege.

While we are all still celebrating the recent victory of the Smart Gilas Team after they came in second in the FIBA Asian Championship concluded last night, let me burst your bubble by showing you the sobering truth. Many of our national team athletes will not get the same chance that the Smart Gilas Philippine Team got. They have been benched. Not just for one game, but for the entire season. They will not be sent to play in the largest biennial sports regional games: The 27th Southeast Asian Games which will be held from December 11-22 in Myanmar.

This biennial sports meet is considered a critical honing ground for our national athletes. This is where we compete with the best athletes from ten other Southeast Asian countries to determine our standing in our very own region.

Over the decades, the SEA Games has produced so many home-grown heroes who would eventually make their mark in the international sports scene. They include, among others, former Asian sprint queen Lydia De Vega-Mercado; boxer Mansueto ‘Onyok’ Velasco Jr., who won our very last Olympic medal, a silver, from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics; basketball legend Allan Caidic, who was once the most feared three-point shooter in all of Asia; world champion bowler Paeng Nepomuceno, who won gold medals for our country from the SEA Games in the eighties; and chess whiz Wesley So, the youngest Filipino to earn a Grand Master title at the age of 14 five years ago, and who is currently ranked No.1 in the Philippines, No.2 among junior players in the world, and No.40 among all chess players around the world.

Mr. President, the SEA Games is the standard by which we could more accurately track the progress of our grassroots sports programs and map out the future for Philippine sports. We could continue to dream for our very first Olympic gold, but it is in the SEA Games where all the planning and hard work should happen first in order for that quest and that dream to even take off.

So where are we today?

With barely four months to go until the 27th SEA Games, another controversy is brewing, yet again, in our national sports program. According to Inquirer news, our sports governing bodies, namely the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) and the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC), have announced that the Philippines would be sending no more than 200 athletes for the Myanmar games. [1] Further, of the 200 slots submitted to the organizers by a joint task force of the POC and PSC, 90 were reserved for individual athletes, while the rest were allocated for team sports. [2]

Mr. President, we tried to get official data from the PSC as regards the number of delegates sent to previous SEA Games tournaments, however we were unable to do so. But per news articles, this appears to be the smallest Philippine delegation to be sent ever to the SEA Games. Sports observers note that we have sent at least 500 athletes or more in past stagings of this event.

So what is the policy that led our sports officials to send, in their words, a ‘lean and mean’ contingent to the SEA Games? According to media reports quoting the POC, the latter is using a ‘performance-specific’ criteria to determine the final list of athletes competing in December. Under the new criteria, only athletes who have won gold medals in the 2011 SEA Games, and those who have the potential to do so are included in this year’s list of delegates. The athletes who fall under the last classification will have their performances in other international events reviewed by a joint screening committee of the POC and PSC.

In the words of POC president Jose Cojuangco as quoted in a Philippine Star article, ‘the purpose is to send only those with good chances for the gold.’ [3] With all due respect, something is fatally flawed in the criteria’s logic. In one clean sweep, our policy now is to shut the door for developing national athletes who could be in contention for just the silver or the bronze, but may develop their skills and become gold medalists in the future.

And who can precisely say whether these athletes are ready to compete for the gold in Myanmar or not when they weren’t even given the chance in the first place? Sadly, we will never know, since we’ve already robbed them of the opportunity to compete. And if they do miss out on the gold, don’t the silver and bronze mean anything anymore? It’s saying to our athletes: ‘It’s the gold or nothing.’ That a silver or bronze in the SEA Games amounts to nothing in our narrow appreciation of the medal tally.

The casualty, Mr. President, is not just one sport in particular. The casualty in this story is the Filipino athlete. Allow me to cite some examples.

The Philippines Under-23 National Men’s Football Team includes some of our young bright booters from the Azkals, our senior national squad who have made an incredible run in several international football competitions and has vastly improved its FIFA ranking in the last two years.

On the other hand, we also have the National Women’s Football Team or the ‘Malditas’ who have just come off from a phenomenal performance in the AFC Asian Women’s Cup Qualifiers, where they finished second in the qualifying stage last May, following a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to powerhouse Thailand.

Sadly, the Under-23 National Men’s Team as well as the ‘Malditas’ remain excluded in the list of teams that will be competing in the upcoming SEA Games. While both teams failed to win any medals in the 2011 SEA Games in Indonesia, they have brought pride to our country by winning in other regional and international tournaments. Further, the growing popularity of football in the country makes it incumbent to send a national team to Myanmar to further help develop aspiring athletes in the sport through performance in leagues in the region [4]  and to enhance sports participation and excellence by Filipinos which is the primarily goal of our national sports program.

Mr. President, I find this latest policy of our two sports governing bodies unacceptable and defeatist. As a sports enthusiast and former national athlete, I know for a fact that an athlete thrives in competition. Proper training, practice and discipline can enhance an athlete’s skills, but it is in actual competition where the athlete can fully blossom to develop his or her potential, and even surpass his or her previous performance.

As members of Congress who approve the annual budget of the PSC, which in turn provides the funding for National Sports Associations which train our national athletes and prepare them for international competitions, we need to be clarified on its policies and get a better idea on its plans for Philippine sports.

Thus, I am filing a resolution to look into the country’s preparations for the 2013 SEA Games, including the reported exclusion from the national delegation of national athletes in various sports competitions due to the decision of the POC and the PSC to send only athletes who, in their own narrow criteria, have the potential to bring home a gold medal for the country.

Mr. President, as introduced earlier by Senator Alan Cayetano, the Philippine Women’s Basketball Team is also present and as of last week, I am not aware that they have been included in the POC, although it was only lately when they were finally endorsed by their NSA.

Dear colleagues, most of last week, Filipinos flocked to MOA or were glued to their television sets, radios and the internet, watching and retrieving news on the Smart Gilas Philippine Basketball Team. We applauded every point. With each win we rejoiced. No less than President P-Noy was at MOA to watch the game. Together with every Filipino, he watched and cheered with pride. And in the end, we celebrated their second place finish. Shouldn’t this feeling of national pride be replicated? Shouldn’t we be able to watch our other athletes in action in the SEA Games? Shouldn’t we be cheering for them as well? I urge the Philippine Sports Commission and the Philippine Olympic Committee to rethink their decision about sending a small delegation.

Let our athletes play. Give them the stage to excel. Give them an arena to perform. Join me in fighting for our athletes and for Philippine sports. Let us give the Filipino athlete a fighting chance. Thank you Mr. President. #

End Notes:

[1] http://sports.inquirer.net/105873/cojuangco-nsas-must-justify-choices

[2] Ibid

[3] http://www.philstar.com/sports/2013/07/01/960232/seag-delegation-its-quality-not-quantity

[4] http://www.rappler.com/sports/by-sport/football/32342-no-azkals-malditas-in-sea-games and http://bleachersbrew.blogspot.com/2013/06/my-thoughts-on-pocpsc-not-sending-any.html

Photos: Sen Pia Cayetano with the coaching staff and players of the Discovery Perlas Philippine Women’s Basketball Team

Sen Pia Cayetano with some members of the Malditas, the Philippine Women’s Football Team

 

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