After 8 years of conspicuous absence, the Philippine Dragon Boat Federation (PDBF) finally returned to action in the 14th International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) World Nations Championships in Pattaya, Thailand last week.
Once considered as one of the top teams in world dragonboating, the PDBF were regarded as the darlings of the tournament in its 2007 and 2009 editions, taking down such heavyweights as China, Canada and Hungary. They were the world’s record holders in the showcase sprint event of the Games – the men’s standard 200m – as well as the mixed standard 200m. Revered and treated as the rock stars of the decade, the squad was so popular that the team’s jerseys were always a priced souvenir for players and fans alike.
Alas, fate would play a cruel joke on this team. As much as they were idolized and emulated by other foreign squads, it would take their own countrymen – not other foreign teams – to sink their glorious run. Back at home, sports politics would deal a fatal blow. At that time, Peping Cojuangco had just been re-elected President of the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) by the slimmest of margins. The PDBF had not voted for Peping, and it came as no surprise that upon his re-election, Peping would move to eliminate the PDBF and place dragonboating under the Philippine Canoe Kayak Federation (PCKF).
Despite their splendid credentials as world champions, despite the fact that the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) is recognized as the world governing body in dragon boating, Peping would succeed in his devious plan to remove the PDBF’s status as a regular National Sports Association (NSA), scuttling the team’s chances for gold medals in the 2010 Asian Games and beyond.
In removing the PDBF, Peping would cite an International Olympic Committee (IOC) directive to place dragon boating under Canoe Kayaking. This is flawed in so many ways. Chief among them is the fact that no other country in the world had received such a directive. For there was never any directive from the IOC to place dragon boating under Canoe Kayaking. Second, the International Canoe Federation (ICF) itself has admitted they are not the world governing body for dragon boating. The ICF, for that matter, had categorically stated its disinterest in the sport way back in the mid-2000.
Performance-wise, the ICF’s dragon boating competitions have always paled in comparison with that of the IDBF. To the canoe-kayak community, dragon boating is just an afterthought; hence not much value is given to their competitions. For that matter, the IDBF World Championships in Pattaya this year brought in more than 3 thousand participants from 30 countries, while the ICF-initiated World Dragon Boat Championships in Gainesville, USA last year brought in less than 600 participants from only 11 countries. Thus the competition – and the talent pool – clearly favors the IDBF.
When the PDBF lost its NSA status, and along with that the fund support for its programs for local and foreign activities, things became difficult for the Federation. In 2011, a smaller team would be sent to Tampa, Florida. Instead of defending their crown in the standard races, the team would have to content themselves by racing in the newly-introduced ‘small boat’ category, where a crew of only 10 paddlers would compete. Still, they managed to salvage a few golds. However, these achievements would slowly dwindle as well, as fund support for foreign forays would eventually dry up.
But the PDBF never reneged in its advocacy to propagate the sport in the far corners of the country. Despite the lack of support, the PDBF opened up new frontiers in the far reaches of Visayas and Mindanao, and even produced a strong team of differently-abled paddlers from Cebu.
Last week, the PDBF finally returned to the World Championships. The newly-elected President, Tikboy Factolarin, had vowed he would try to bring back the PDBF to its former prominence. Noting that the Games would be hosted by nearby Thailand, Tikboy brought in a huge contingent to the Pattaya Games, to signal the country’s determination to return to the fray.
Thus the PDBF, after years of absence, returned to the world arena. And to the pleasant surprise of many, produced 4 golds, 2 silvers and 4 bronzes. Not bad, considering the long lay-off. The golds were courtesy of the PADS para-dragons, who dominated the newly-introduced paralympic side. It has been a long, difficult journey back for the PDBF. But certainly, a rewarding and exhilarating one. Not bad indeed.