Sports and politics at the SEA Games

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By Ariel Nepomuceno

THAT SPORTS is a unifying force and a great purveyor of any country’s heritage and cultural identity is not a matter to be debated. It is a reality. Sports is and has always been an enabler and should be harnessed for binding us closer as a nation rather than breaking us apart.

Hosting an international sports competition like the 2019 SEA Games is a litmus test of how our young and striving republic can demonstrate to the international community that we have the ability to provide a safe, secure, and reliable venue for celebrating sports and humanity.

Before the opening of the competition and as the clock ticked, everyone was holding their breath over to how the current political leadership of President Duterte could bring back the sparkle, the bravura, and a renewed sense of nationalism with the staging of the SEA Games

The excitement and anticipation was doused incredibly when lawmakers, in the normal course of reviewing the proposed budget of the different government agencies, chanced upon the budget for the SEA Games. Then and there, it was revealed that something was not right. The initial findings showed that the whopping original budget of P6 billion given to the Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee (Phisgoc) which was augmented by an additional P1.5 billion, was still “housed” under the Department of Foreign Affairs, an agency that does not have the legal mandate to oversee such an activity. The senate investigations were so intense that even the P50 million paid for the Manosa cauldron that Senator Pacquiao lit during the games’ opening ceremony, was shown as shockingly excessive.

Along with the side issues and the dark shadow of possible corruption at the SEA Games, more criticism flooded when allegedly some athletes arrived in Manila with some horror stories to tell. Local and international media reports recounted complaints about the long lines in the airport, lack of transport facilities, hotel accommodations, insufficient food, and a lack of appreciation of the dietary requirements of the athletes. One particular embassy, according to the news, had to launch an initiative to feed its own representatives. Even some of the venues of the sports events were described as ill maintained and not fit for the particular sport to be conducted therein. The result is a big red mark on the Philippines’ reputation if one is only to read the press releases and articles that came out left and right, here and abroad. But to be fair to the organizers of this grand event, such allegations of mismanagement and errors are yet to be concretely proven. In fact, it is claimed that perhaps there was a deliberate attempt to sabotage the image of Phisgoc in particular and the entire administration of President Duterte in general for some political ends. Whether these assertions are real or not, or partially correct but extensively exaggerated, the international community probably has already accorded the whole country some doubt and suspicion. We are the collateral damage.

Despite the perceived mess in the way the games were organized, the Philippines conquered and went beyond the “hiccups.” The citizenry focused instead on how the SEA Games can be an opportunity and not a failure. The fact that the Filipino adores sports reigned over the negativity spawned by the early days’ controversies.

And give credit where credit is due. The opening ceremony revealed the indomitable creative and artistic Filipino spirit. Themed around our tribal roots and pre-colonial Philippines, the dances and warrior exercises exhibited the vibrancy, vitality, and vim of our athletes and our people. Demonstrated was the organizers’ objective to promote inclusivity by harnessing the cultural highlights of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Why, even the inherent musicality of the Filipino was emphasized with Filipino singers dishing out OPM songs from the 1960s down to the ’90s. The famed ’70s song by the band Hotdog, “Manila,” transformed the arena into a dancing party for young and old, Filipino and Non-Filipino, all enjoying the good vibes that only sports can bring. Our very own President gleefully clapped his hands and danced to the music, and the rest is history. The controversial cauldron, turned into a glimmering pot of gold for one night for the Filipino.

The country adores sports and the Filipinos love their athletes passionately, VICTORS OR NOT. This love is continuously being reciprocated by our athletes with fantastic results so far. As of Dec. 2, the Philippines won a total of 71 medals: 38 gold, 20 silver, and 13 bronze. Not yet done and more laurels to reap.

So much has been said and done about the ongoing SEA Games. While we revel in our successes, we must harvest lessons from our failures. Our president has assured the public that accountability shall be demanded from the agencies responsible for alleged cases of mismanagement and corruption.

Let the medals flood in but the responsibility for mistakes be accounted for.