SEA Games 2023

Oro, plata, mata: When gold is life

Jasmine W. Payo

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Oro, plata, mata: When gold is life

ECSTATIC. The Philippines' Ernest John Obiena reacts during the men's pole vault competitions in the 2023 Southeast Asian Games.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/REUTERS

This SEA Games, we’re reminded again that athletes serve more than just a sportswriter’s game subject, and definitely more than just a fan’s passing entertainment

Why do we find little value in silver or bronze? 

For many sports fans and journalists, only gold holds real weight. Much more so in local basketball where it’s the only acceptable medal color the Philippine team can take home in the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games

The regional sporting showcase has long served as the country’s hoop playground. Even before the action starts, fans have virtually tallied one basketball gold for the Philippines in the medal board.

That’s how dominant we were in the sport, or so we thought, until the Indonesians pulled off the biggest shocker last year when they snatched the gold away from us after 33 years.

Hello! I’m Jasmine Payo, the sports editor of Rappler. This year’s SEA Games in Cambodia just wrapped up and the Philippines finally reclaimed the basketball gold.

It wasn’t an easy trek back to the top, though, as Gilas Pilipinas lost early to Cambodia – the SEA Games host who pulled out all the stops to win this year. 

In men’s basketball, the Cambodians fielded an American first five – all naturalized players so technically, they didn’t violate any sporting rule, but they sure did one-up us. 

Even tycoon Manny V. Pangilinan (MVP), the chairman emeritus of the Philippines’ basketball federation and longtime sports patron, couldn’t help but air his disbelief.

Just minutes after the final buzzer, MVP posted on Twitter that Gilas Pilipinas had a “disgraceful game,” even describing it as “an ignominious defeat which will be etched deeply in infamy.” 

For local sports journalists that night, action shifted from on-court to online.

Gilas Pilipinas players huddle during a SEA Games match. Photo courtesy of FIBA

To instantaneously see an irate MVP on social media still takes some getting used to for some of us traditionally trained sports journalists. 

I covered sports for a major broadsheet, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, for over a decade before joining Rappler. Given the different work dynamics, I admittedly needed help from my agile Gen Z sports reporters Delfin Dioquino and JR Isaga, and our digital communications head Kaye Cabal to fill me in on the social media action. 

That early blow Gilas Pilipinas took? Back then, all the locker-room unraveling you can only find out from us trads – print, television, and radio. 

But now that social media act like a king, news coverage has clearly pivoted in so many ways over the years. 

Along with it, the Southeast Asian sporting landscape also made strides and turns – whether good or bad depends on which side of the region you’re playing. 

For a longtime sporting minnow like Cambodia, the changes – technology (they had a nifty SEA Games app, by the way) and naturalization rules, included – mostly turned out for the better.

For the Philippines, sporting action remains a mixed bag, but there’s still a lot to celebrate in this SEA Games. Reclaiming the basketball gold isn’t all that matters, after all.

ECSTATIC. EJ Obiena roars as he bags his third straight SEA Games gold in Cambodia.

Many other Filipino athletes made us proud, winning a total of 58 gold medals, led by Olympians EJ Obiena (pole vault), Carlos Yulo (gymnastics), Nesthy Petecio and Carlo Paalam (boxing), Kurt Barbosa (taekwondo), and Elreen Ando (weightlifting). 

For most of our sports heroes – whether they took home a gold, silver, or bronze – there’s an irreplaceable sense of pride and glory in carrying the national colors on the international stage.

On the pragmatic side, athletes also look forward to the monetary bonus – an incentive that national athletes are entitled to receive by law. 

Since quite a number of local athletes come from poor provinces, the windfall usually turns lives around. So for them, competitions define not just their paths on court or on field, but also off it.

GYMNASTICS STAR. Carlos Yulo ends his 2023 SEA Games campaign with a four-medal haul.

Oro, plata, mata. It’s an unrelated architectural superstition, yet somehow, lends sports a different meaning. 

Gold, silver, death. While a major loss or injury can sometimes turn into a career death sentence, Filipino warriors often try to find ways to bounce back.

They fight many battles – on court, on field, and also off it. This SEA Games, we’re reminded again that athletes serve more than just a sportswriter’s game subject, and definitely more than just a fan’s passing entertainment, even if it’s so easy for some to diss, or more terribly, unleash online vile on losers.

Athletes’ lives play out in many unique ways, their challenges different. It’s a life that we fans and sports journalists often only appreciate when they’re on top. It’s a life  that we non-physically gifted folks can only imagine. It’s a life where any medal color glitters. –

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Jasmine W. Payo

Jasmine joined Rappler as its sports editor in 2018 after over a decade of working as a sportswriter for a national broadsheet.