The problem with Philippine sports

Natashya Gutierrez

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After the Philippine delegation returned from its fourth Olympics in a row with no medals, Rappler searches for answers to the sorry state of sports

EARLY EXIT. Boxer Mark Barriga failed to advance past the second round in the London 2012 Olympics.

MANILA, Philippines – The Olympics have come and gone and yet again, the Philippines has failed to rank among the world’s best.

For the fourth Olympics in a row, Filipino athletes were unable to take home a medal of any color for the country, the last having been boxer Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco who won a silver in Atlanta in 1996.

In over 20 Olympic Games since 1924, the Philippines has won a dismal 9 medals — 2 silvers and 7 bronzes. This record is only one medal more than the record 8 medals won by the Philippines’ neighboring country Thailand in one Olympics.

Only in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics did the country win more than one medal in the Games. In LA, the Philippines won 3 bronze medals in 3 different sports — athletics, boxing and swimming.

Exactly 90 years later, the LA Games is still the most successful Olympics the country has ever had, with the state of sports in the Philippines having appeared to worsen rather than improve over the decades.

In the 2005 Southeast Asian Games, the Philippines came out on top, besting its 10 other neighbors and bagging 281 medals. By 2011, the Philippines finished a dismal 6th of 11, with its measly 169-medal haul.

So what is the matter with Philippine sports?

No vision

Filipinos love sports.

The whole country joins Manny Pacquiao when he gets in the ring. The Philippines fell in love with football quickly and hard when the Azkals came along. And there is a basketball court in practically every barangay across the nation.

We aren’t short on passion, and neither do we lack talent. So what is it that is making us fail so miserably?

NO ONE LIKE PACMAN. The Philippines comes together when Manny Pacquiao steps into the ring.

Just two days after the end of the Games, Sen Francis Pangilinan pushed for a review of the effectiveness and efficiency of the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) and the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC).

The PSC is the government’s funding arm primarily tasked with helping the development of amateur sports in the country, while the POC is a private, non-government related organization recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the sole agency in the Philippines responsible for athletes competing in the Olympics and other international competitions.

“Representing the country is a huge undertaking. We must prepare our athletes for the pressure of competing on a global scale and do all that we can to provide them the necessary tools and skills to ensure victory,” Pangilinan said in a statement.

“Sending delegates to international competition is akin to sending diplomats to foreign countries. There are certain minimum standards that we must always strive to achieve if we want the rest of the world to take us seriously in sports,” he added.

The nation shows no hesitation in pointing their fingers at one direction when it comes to the country’s failure in sports: most feel the government is to blame.

Sports analyst Ronnie Nathanielsz agrees with Pangilinan.

Food, training, vision

Nathanielsz, who has been covering Philippine sports since 1963, emphasized the need for a holistic approach to athlete preparation that would make them competitive in the world stage.

Aside from the right training, he pointed to the need for proper diet and psychological readiness — all of which work together to enhance performance.

“Our athletes, we lack nutrition, we lack physical and mental conditioning,” he told Rappler. “How can you be mentally strong if you’re not physically strong? We don’t have training facilities. There’s no effort to develop these.”

SAD COLLAPSE. Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz was unable to complete her clean and jerk in London 2012, despite having been able to clear heavier weights in the past.

Effort, he maintained, comes from vision.

The lack of it from the government is the main problem, said Nathanielsz, who knows sports just isn’t a priority of the country.

Not since Fidel V. Ramos has there been a president that has given much attention on sports.

Ramos, a sports lover and practicioner, signed Executive Orders 63 and 64 that mandated the creation of Physical, Fitness and Sports Development Councils (PFSDC) to promote physical education and sports programs and competitions on a national scale.

It was also during his term that the Philippines last won an Olympic medal. Then PSC chairman Phillip Ella Juico has since said that Ramos instructed the PSC to pull out all stops to back the Philippine Olympic team.

Presidents after Ramos have put little emphasis on sports, which has shown in the Philippine team’s results at international competitions.

“With all due respect to President Aquino, he’s not a sportsman,” said Nathanielsz. “He’s not athletic.”

Not a priority

PSC chairman Ricardo Garcia knows that the present administration does not rank sports on the top of its list.

“Any form of advice that will come from the PSC will come out as negative, because right now our government has more pressing problems, like housing, security, energy that will have much more priority than sports,” he said in a Philippine Star interview.

The lack of attention given to sports is evident in the negligible budget the government allots for athletic development.

In 2011, PSC was given P400 million, more than double 2010’s dismal budget of P154 million. Still, it was far from enough.

NOT ENOUGH. President Benigno Aquino III attended the opening ceremonies of Palarong Pambansa but government support for sports is far from enough.

According to Garcia, budget proposals from the country’s 53 national sports associations (NSA) that year alone reached P600 million.

In comparison, according to the Singapore government website, Singapore received a total budget of P7.4 billion for sports alone in 2011. Singapore has a population of 5 million while the Philippines is a country of 90 million.

Although Singapore is not a major world player in sports, the recent investment of the government in sports has paid off.

In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the country nabbed its second Olympic medal in history, its first as an independent nation after 48 years, when the women’s table tennis team took home the silver.

In London 2012, Singapore did not only double their medal count from 2008 after winning 2 bronze medals also in women’s table tennis, it also marked the first time it took home a medal in two consecutive Olympics.

Singapore sent 23 athletes to compete in 9 different sports, compared to the Philippines’ 11-man delegation in 8 sports despite having 18 times more people. 

Questionable leadership

The lack of government prioritization appears to perpetuate yet another problem: destructive politics among sports agencies.

Accusations of mishandled funds and power struggles between heads of NSAs, the PSC and the POC have been widespread for years. 

A recent clash illustrates the problem perfectly. Not long ago, NSA chiefs butted heads with ex-PSC chairman Harry Angping, after the former failed to report to the PSC and liquidate millions of pesos in advances, which resulted in NSAs having to face the court. The POC allegedly led a movement to take Angping out of power and put Garcia in position, which has opened up a controversial POC-PSC partnership. 

Today, numerous NSAs have still not been able to adequately liquidate financial assistance they received from the government. Garcia himself has also reportedly admitted he became chairman because of POC chief Peping Cojuangco. 

As dirty as politics are in sports, the worst part is this: athletes have been caught in the middle of such disputes, with some being deprived of financial support or being barred from competing in international competitions, as was the case with the Philippine Dragonboat Team controversy.

And the administration has failed — or perhaps chosen to turn a blind eye — on holding anyone accountable.

Amateur Boxing Association of the Philippines (ABAP) president Ricky Vargas, who heads what many believe is the most successful NSA in the country, told Rappler that one of the major problems pulling sports down is leadership and widespread politics.

NO SUPPORT. A member of the Philippine Dragon Boat Team that competed in Tampa. August 9, 2011. Taken by Den Victoria.

“[After the Olympics], they come out with excellent programs and ideas until one month from today when it all subsides then we’re all back to politics — elections of new NSA heads, elections of POC, then back to PSC — and I bet you that’s what’s going to happen,” he said. “There is politics in sports and it’s very strong… they [the leadership] use the same political savvy to stay in office. They use political names, they use their own clout to stay in office.”

Vargas refused to mention names but said he wished that leaders had the decency to resign when needed — as he said he would, if someone felt they could do a better job than him — and suggested a sort of revamp.

He cited the need for new leaders with fresh ideas, and said that blaming NSAs completely for the failure of their athletes misses the larger picture.

Accountability, he said, starts on top, and there should be more of it among sports leaders in the NSAs, the PSC and the POC. He emphasized that it doesn’t take a couple of years to build an Olympian, and that the country should start planning longterm if it was serious about succeeding in sports.

“At the end of the day, even if you do make it a priority, it’s leadership. We should be accountable for what we do,” Vargas said. “We’re all saying the same things, the problem is it boils down to leadership. It’s execution. Who can execute it better? It takes a whole community to do that — POC, PSC, NSAs, government, private sector and the athlete.”

He added, “It’s true when they say there’s no space for politics in sports.”

Athletes’ woes

Athletes themselves agree that there is still much that the government and sports agencies have left to do.

Olympic swimmer Jessie Lacuña told Rappler he wishes the country had facilities like those of Singapore, where swimmers also enjoy strong support from the government and good coaches, while his co-swimmer Jasmine Alkhaldi admitted before going to London, that it has been a difficult journey because of the country’s limited resources.

WISHING FOR MORE. Swimmer Jessie Lacuña expressed his wishes that the state of Philippine sports would improve.

“We are trying to make the most out of what we got, but I think we should build up more centers like the sports facilities in Laguna, where you can train and go to school so you can focus on sport,” she said.

POC president Cojuangco, who has been in his position for almost 8 years, is aware there is still much to be done.

In an email, he told Rappler he is working closely with the PSC and know that athletes need better nutrition including vitamins and supplements, and a training center where athletes can be quartered, fed and supervised by coaches.

However, he stressed that rather than a review of the POC and PSC tenets, what needs change is the lack of government support.

“What is needed to be revised is the value that the government will give to sport. Sports is not only winning of medals but also an integral part of growing our citizens properly,” he said, citing the lack of budget allotted to sports.

“Like in every international competition that we participate in we have these so called ‘experts’ criticizing our performance without giving any positive suggestions. What they propose is always for change but they never mention what kind of change is necessary. I hope we can finally make a decision on what we want to do with our sports. The importance that we will give to it in respect to our way of life.”

Looking for change

Beyond the sorry state of sports in the nation, the good news is that some government officials are aware of the problem, and appears to have had enough.

Aside from Pangilinan, various politicians have shown an interest in prioritizing sports.

In June, Sen Antonio Trillanes IV, chairman of the Senate Committee for Sports, pushed to abolish the PSC under Senate Bill 3092, which seeks to create the Department of Sports.

Trillanes wants the head of the sports department to have a cabinet member position, as close to the President as possible, to help prioritize sports development and influence his decisions. 

He also looks to create an Amateur Sports Development Bureau committed to grassroots initiatives and another bureau to focus on athletes’ training for international meets.

NO SHOES. Angelica De Josef of WVRAA competes barefoot at the Palarong Pambansa 2012, the country's biggest amateur sports competition. Team Dexter Palaro Coverage 2012.

Triathlete and Sen Pia Cayetano as well as Aurora Rep Sonny Angara, have also continued to throw their support behind a bill that aims to construct a Philippine High School for Sports (PHSS), which will offer outstanding student-athletes scholarships and athletic and academic development.

Angara is one of 28 co-authors of the bill that is close to becoming a law. 

During Aquino’s 2012 State of the Nation Address, Cayetano told Rappler that she cannot really say she has seen significant improvements in sports since Aquino took power.

“I think it is high time that government starts seriously supporting sports programs,” she said. “Naninwala ako na kung talagang bigyan nating pansin and sports, maraming malalayo sa drugs, maraming makakatapos sa college (I believe that if we truly prioritize sportsm many will be veered away from drugs, many will finish college).”

Cayetano also admitted that the government lacks vision on where it wants to see sports go.

“If we just had a better plan for this, there are so many more youths to help and we can be competitive internationally,” she said.

Private funding

So far, one thing that Aquino has implemented in the field of sports is focus on disciplines that Filipinos excel in and are most likely to produce Olympic champions. He has committed P200 million to what is coined the ‘focus sports policy.’

Given the directive to choose, the PSC selected 10 sports to focus on and fund: archery, athletics, billiards, bowling, boxing, taekwondo, swimming, weightlifting, wrestling and wushu.

While it sacrifices other sports somewhat, most experts agree this is the best solution given the country’s limited resources.

The men’s Philippine basketball team coach, Chot Reyes, said he thinks it is a good idea, even if basketball is not part of the 10 disciplines given government priority.

FOCUS ON ARCHERY. Archery is one of the ten sports the government has chosen to focus on.

Reyes knows that basketball is a different beast altogether, and that even without government support, it can survive, as it should, he said, because of its popularity and the passion of Filipinos towards it. But he also insisted that other sports could work towards achieving the same status.

According to Reyes, a sport’s popularity or lack of funding should not be a detriment in an NSA’s desire to develop it. While it is ideal that the government financially backs sports development in the country, he encouraged sports heads to look at private sectors and find funding elsewhere, citing the Azkals as the perfect example.

“For the other sports, my thinking is, do your job, don’t just complain,” he said, pointing to the quick development of the previously ignored sport of football, after the Philippine Football Federation looked for outside funds, brought in a new manager, recruited players and built up their program.

Now, he said, football is a sport many private entities are eager to finance.

“The NSAs who get their act together and get their job done are able to do wonders for their sport,” he said.

Vargas agreed with Reyes, saying that part of ABAP’s success — which has been named NSA of the year several times — is largely due to his agency’s individual efforts in developing grassroots programs.

He said their 3-year-old grassroots efforts, largely funded by private sectors, were responsible for producing the 2012 Philippine Olympic team’s biggest name: Mark Anthony Barriga.

Pinoy pride

When the Philippine Olympic delegation came home to the Philippines, most Filipinos did not even know they were back.

There was no fanfare, no heroes welcome, no celebration. This lack of praise is telling of the minimal value given to sports by the Philippine government, one that will continue unless the administration decides to prioritize sports development.

Politicians and sports leaders understand the need for a clearer vision for sports — the importance of grassroots initiatives, accountability, new institutions to focus on athletic development, and increased funding.

PINOY PRIDE. Azkals wave the Philippine flag after their game against LA Galaxy in front of a packed stadium. December 3, 2011. Rupert Ambil.

They know political bickering is dragging down the ability of sports to progress, and that athletes are suffering.

They know what’s wrong, they know what to do, but the question is, will they do it? –

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.