Olympic watch: PH looks to athletics for medal hope

MANILA, Philippines - The Rio Olympics are set for August 2016, which is less than 7 months from now. All 206 countries are gearing up to win any of the 306 medals up for grabs.    

The chase for that elusive Olympic gold medal has been an ongoing pursuit for Philippine sports. Though the country has had several moments of glory, they have been few and far between.

These triumphs have come from individual performances in the fields of boxing, swimming, athletics and archery. This is a fact the new Chairman of the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA) takes note of. 

New leadership, same dream 

Mr. Philip Ella Juico, or “Popoy” as he is fondly called by his colleagues in the world of sports, first served as vice-Chairman under Go Teng Kok before taking over the reins of PATAFA. 

Popoy humbly admits that it will be difficult to fill the shoes of the former chairman. He acknowledges that the PATAFA has outstanding relations with the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) and the Asian Athletics Association (AAA) and being in their good graces simply means that the organization has met the international bodies’ expectations and have together effectively spurred the growth of the sport.

Despite this accolade, Popoy knows the Filipino sports fan has a different standard. He accepts the fact that the best test of a sports organization is in its ability to produce outstanding athletes.   

Immediately after the leadership change, PATAFA set  two objectives. The first is to be able to field a pool of athletes with a medal chance to the Rio 2016 Olympics, and second, to establish a sustainable grassroots program aimed at discovering future medal hopefuls. 

Popoy believes that these can be done. The organization he says has a working board made up of true stakeholders all agreed to the same goal. 

“We had good athletes, coaches but they were not getting the support they needed because of the intramurals….” Popoy shares. 

The Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) was funding the athletes but were limited to the resources they had.  The budget was given directly to the training pool of athletes as well as their coaches but the support was just enough to cover their basic needs. 

From day one, PATAFA decided to be more aggressive in scouting for private sector support. 

Popoy’s philosophy is this: “I really believe that when it comes to elite sport, the government should have very little role because government funds are public funds meant for the general public.” He believes that for a sport to grow there must be strong support from the private sector. 

He is looking at a system that is a cross between the American model that is purely private sector funded and the China model that is purely from government. He points to the Australian system as his guide.

Armed with this ideology, PATAFA now works very closely with private sector   to support the bid of several Filipino hopefuls.

Philippine Rio 2016 Olympic hopefuls

Eric Shauwn Cray, a Filipino American, has already qualified for the 400 meter hurdle event by posting a time of 49.12 seconds, besting the Olympic qualifying mark of 49.40 in the Cayman Invitational Athletics late in 2015. He joins female weight lifter Hidilyn Diaz as one of two Filipinos who have already punched their ticket to Rio.  

Cray also brought home the gold in the same event at the 2015 South East Asian (SEA) Games and grabbed the gold in the 100 and 200 meter sprints.

Ernest John Obiena set a new Philippine record at 5.45 meters in a recent PATAFA sponsored meet. That's still short of the Olympic qualifying pole vault height of 5.70 meters, though Obiena and his team are very confident they will make the cut in time for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Popoy also identified Mervin Guarte and Edgardo Alejan Jr (middle distance), Mary Joy Tabal (marathon), Christopher Ulboc Jr (steeple chase) and of course, Marestella Torres (long jump) as the other athletes expected to qualify. 

FEU Tamaraw Christopher Ulboc Jr is also expected to qualify for Rio in the steeplechase event. File photo by Singapore SEA Games Organising Committee/Action Images via Reuters

FEU Tamaraw Christopher Ulboc Jr is also expected to qualify for Rio in the steeplechase event.

File photo by Singapore SEA Games Organising Committee/Action Images via Reuters

PATAFA and these athletes have been working very closely to search for sponsors and benefactors to support their Olympic bid. 

Sowing now

As PATAFA focuses on this short term objective, they have committed also to the search and development of local athletes in preparation for the long term. 

Popoy commits to holding National Open championships and allow the best athletes to showcase their wares. The goal is to flush out the fastest and strongest Filipinos in the hopes of truly developing home grown competitors. 

Simultaneously, a program dubbed as ‘Street Athletics” was also launched. The program calls for a strong partnership with willing Local Government Units (LGUs) to conduct regular track and field meets conducted literally on the streets. Popoy believes that if this is done regularly, the young athletes with potential can be easily spotted and eventually brought up to a more formal training system. 

More importantly, PATAFA is leveraging on their good relations with the IAAF and soon a “Kids Athletics” meet will be launched. Funding and support will mainly come from the international federation. The plans are grand but it is expected that the IAAF is supporting this endeavor fully. 

Together with these, Popoy mentioned several land developer companies willing to build sport complexes to support this idea.They are looking at building facilities that will include a track oval which should be used not only for track and field meets but also as training ground for tri-athletes. Popoy shares that if the plans materialize, they can even invite, through the IAAF, the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt to grace the launch. 

Practically being involved in sports in almost all of his public life, Popoy stresses that implementing all these plans is another thing. He however is beaming with pride that they have created enough momentum to have all these projects moving forward. 

Popoy looks at 2016 to be a banner year for Philippine athletics. He is confident that the current crop of athletes PATAFA has listed down in their “Project Olympic Dream” are all on track in their training and preparation en route to qualifying for the Rio Olympics 2016. 

That Olympic gold may not be as elusive this time around. – Rappler.com