Rage of Dragons

MANILA, Philippines—On Friday, Aug. 12, 2011, they will come home with five gold medals, two silvers, and a new world record.

They are undoubtedly the best paddlers in the country, and at a time when Phil Younghusband and his band of European footballers reign over Manila’s billboards, the Philippine Dragon Boat Federation (PDBF) can claim to have paddled their way to victory on the strength of pure Filipino muscle.

They are not, however, considered the national team. 

In 2010, the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) demanded that the PDBF undergo time-trials as a condition for the team’s participation in the Guangzhou Asian Games.

When the team beat existing winning times set in Asian championships, however, Col. Jeff Tamayo, Philippine Olympics Committee (POC) chief representative at the trials in La Mesa Dam cast doubts on the outcome of the trial.

Philippine Star news report said that in his report to the POC, Tamayo said,  “Our paddlers were super men and women, or were on super steroids.”

Tamayo’s report was adopted in full. POC chairman Monico Puentevella announced to the media that “our dragon boat teams are not in the best of shape for the Asian Games considering the quality of the competition.” In a television interview, a POC official claimed that the board seriously doubted the accuracy of the time-trial results, claiming they were “unbelievably fast.”

The team was dropped from the Asian contingent.

The media knew of the decision long before the paddlers did. In October 2010 the women’s team was in competition in Camarines Sur for the First Camarines Sur International Dragon Boat Festival when they were gathered by their coach and told there would be no Asian competition that year.

“They said we were too good, too fast,” said Annabelle Tario, the team’s coach. “They said we were not fit to race against tough competition. What can we do?”

The women’s team, at the time just about to compete against a mixed boat of male and female paddlers from the Philippine Navy, strode to their boat in dark glasses and silence. “We were crying while paddling,” said women’s team captain Amina Anuddin. “But we won gold in that race.”

At the time, the PDBF 44-strong, already held two world titles, numerous regional trophies, as well as had the right to claim they had set and beat their own world record.

After the tempest over the Asian games, the team took up their paddles and began training for the worlds. The title was theirs to defend.

In January of 2011, POC announced that the PDBF, the official Dragon Boat organization registered under the International Dragon Boat Federation, was to paddle under the banner of the Philippine Canoe-Kayak Federation.

A member of the Philippine Dragon Boat team (Photo by Den Victoria)

“Dragon boat now belongs to canoeing. The PDBF is still a member but it will function under canoe-kayak,” said POC president Jose “Peping” Cojuangco.

PSC chairman Ricardo Garcia said an International Olympic Committee (IOC) memo states that the dragon boat event is under the discipline event of Canoe-Kayak. For the paddlers to be considered members of the Philippine team, they had to be recognized by the Cojuanco-led POC.

The claim of an IOC demand has yet to be confirmed. Tario says the PDBF is yet to be shown the memo. Bandera reporter and blogger Eric Dimzon reports that it was the POC itself that had asked the IOC if it was possible for Dragon Boat to fall under Canoe-Kayak.

“They called it a merging at first,” Tario said on an interview with current affairs show Storyline.

The “merging” involved leaving behind the team’s coaches, and the stripping of the federation’s national team status. Only those who agreed to join the newly merged group would be considered national athletes. Many of the athletes attempted the move, but several left after two weeks.

Canoe-Kayak, a separate paddling discipline, has yet to win a medal for the Philippines.

Anuddin, a swimmer who had to defend her love for athletics against a conservative Muslim family, was one of the first to leave Canoe-Kayak. To leave meant leaving behind not only the status of being a national athlete, it also meant rejecting government sponsorship.

“I knew I would lose my allowance, and that I would be out of a job. But I do not want to steal from the Filipino people if I cannot come home with a medal. If your training is so-so, you’ll never win. I could sit in the boat and row and get my allowance monthly, but I have a conscience.”

It was impossible from the beginning, said Tario. The PDBF is the only body recognized by the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF), the world governing body for dragon boat race. No other dragon boat federation, national team or otherwise, can compete internationally in IDBF events without PDBF accreditation—including the 10th IDBF World Dragon Boat Racing Championships in Tampa Bay, Florida

Athletes protested being deprived of their coaches, and the fact they were forced to train under an un-medalled federation. Sixteen of the old team resigned their national team status status, including 13 enlisted personnel who made up a majority of the national team.

Race to the sun

The 16 also included the men’s division team captain, Usman Anterola, an armed forces sergeant and two-time world champion. Annabelle Tario became the team’s lynchpin, and it was with her leadership that the team decided to fight for victory in Florida.

Suddenly, a barely-known sport became the subject of street corner conversation.

The nation whose national inspiration was a street vendor turned international boxing superstar had found another underdog: a guerilla group of 16 dragon boat paddlers, stripped of their status as national athletes, surviving on donations and grim hard work against the best of the world in the fight for glory and country.

They promised to win, or to die trying. It was a matter of honor. Over the radio, repeated in every public affairs show, written and retweeted over the Internet during the run-up to Tampa Bay: “We want to prove them wrong.”

It was a story that fired the national imagination. Every gold medal the team scored became breaking news, with local and foreign coverage as well as hour-by-hour updates on Twitter, Facebook and on forums online.

Filipinos in Florida brought the team not just food, water and support, but presented them personalized carbon-fiber oars to replace their heavy wooden paddles, the only equipment the team could afford.

The win, however, is not universally acknowledged.

According to Philippine Canoe-Kayak Federation secretary-general Jonie Go, the PDBF’s achievements were mostly against newly developed countries. She claimed, “The events the paddlers won were not the regular dragon boat rowing events where the medals are disputed in the SEA Games but are categorized as ‘small boat’ events.”

Boat used by the Philippine Dragon Boat team (Photo by Den Victoria)

The small boat category where the PDBF now hold a world record is a new event. Go is correct in that the PDBF could not defend their world title in the standard boat category, a race which requires teams to have 20 members to be able to compete. Many of their paddlers who remained with the Canoe-Kayak Federation could not afford to give up the allowances and support mandated for national athletes.

What is rarely spoken of is the danger the team faces, even with its multiple gold medals.

The enlisted soldiers, whose national service used to be daily participation as athletes, are now compelled to perform double roles, training with their paddles only when they are not on duty.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines has allowed their personnel to train and compete, but the possibility of the soldiers being assigned elsewhere, away from their Manila-based families and the training team, is very real.

Although there are calls to reinstate the team and depose the POC and PSC leaderships, no official statements have come from the national government.

When the Philippine Dragon Boat Federation arrives August 12, 2011, there will be no congratulatory press conferences arranged by the PSC.

The P100, 000 every team should receive under the PSC charter with each gold medal will be withheld. Funding will peter out without a world championship in the offing.

They know all this, but it does not matter yet. They have brought home the gold, and they have kept a promise. For now, they say it is enough.—Newsbreak