How the Philippines Clinched the SEA Games Overall Crown

Congratulations to our national athletes for winning the overall championship in the recently-concluded SEA Games medal race! After years of languishing in 5th to 7th place in the biennial South East Asian (SEA) Games, the Philippines is finally lording it over the field once again; with an eye-popping 149 golds, 117 silvers and 121 bronzes; winning the overall crown with plenty to spare.

The Philippines scored a lopsided win in the overall race for medals in the 30th SEA Games hosted by the Philippines. (Wikipedia)

Indeed, it was an inspiring, exciting performance for our athletes; humbling critics and exceeding expectations of so many fans and kibitzers – myself included. I had earlier predicted 70 to 90 golds before the Games; and for this, my ‘mea culpa’. I was wrong, I am humbled, I am sorry. To our athletes who made our country proud, my sincerest appreciation, my thanks and my snappy salute! You are all an inspiration to us. You have made us proud once again. No longer are we the sick joke of Southeast Asian sports. No longer do we bow our heads in humiliation. For now, it seems we are on the way to erase that losers’ image that we so mindlessly developed in the past decade.

And it was not just our athletes who did great! I wish to salute all the people who joined hands, not just to win in the different sports arenas, but to make the hosting a great success. It was a great show, despite the early misgivings articulated. Of course, foremost among those we must acknowledge would have to be President Digong himself, whose magnanimity and decisiveness in providing the resources saved the day for us. Prez Digong’s full support for the Games – for the athletes and for the hosting event – was the most important ingredient in this victory, no doubt about it.

With that, of course, the tireless efforts of the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC), particularly Chairman Butch Ramirez, whose timely intercessions averted a disaster waiting to happen for the PHISGOC. Insiders had lamented the painfully slow progress made by the PHISGOC before the PSC stepped in. Everything changed when Chairman Butch came in. Decision-making was decentralized, making it go faster; and resources moved straight to the intended activities, even as Chairman Butch alternately toiled with the 2 major concerns in the hosting: the athletes’ training and the venue preparations.

Finally, to the POC President Abraham Tolentino, who was willing to go against the entrenched sports mafia and fight to bring back Philippine Sports to the athletes. Philippine Sports had been on a downtrend during the Peping Cojuangco era. During Ricky Vargas’ brief reign as POC head honcho, this hemorrhage had been arrested, as proven by our respectable finish in the Asian Games. With Tolentino at the helm, the Peping mafia has been held at bay, hopefully for good.

Medal tally for the last 4 Asian Games.
Note the gradual decline of golds from 2005 to 2017 when the POC was under Peping Cojuangco.

For the record, there is a trend for host countries to dominate the Games. Philippines last hosted in 2005, and we took the overall championship then, with 112 gold medals in 444 events played. Thailand followed suit as host and champion in 2007. Cash-strapped Laos hosted a token Games in 2009, and it landed a respectable 7th. Indonesia hosted and took the championship in 2011. Myanmar was host in 2013, and it landed a surprising 2nd in the overall standings despite its manpower and resource lack. Tiny Singapore followed in 2015, landing 2nd as well. Finally, Malaysia hosted last 2017, finishing 1st in the medal race. This year, we garnered 149 golds out of 530 events played. And we expect Vietnam to follow suit when it hosts the Games in 2021.

Host countries have traditionally dominated in the SEA Games.

This phenomenon is really nothing new. First, there’s the fact that SEA Games hosts can maximize their medal hauls by introducing sports deemed advantageous to them. In our case, the re-introduction of Arnis (14 out of 20 Golds) and Dance Sport (10 out of 13 golds) were significant numbers in our campaign. The host can also drop sports disadvantageous to themselves. In 2009, we protested the non-inclusion of Basketball in the Laos Games. Resource-constrained Laos justified that the event produced just 1 medal, and would need so much resources and teams to set up.

Except for Basketball, Boxing and Triathlon, the rest are add-ons which played a big factor in tipping the scale in the Philippines’ favor.
Total Gold medals for the Philippines in the new sports introduced – 35; for all the rest – 42.

And second is the homecourt advantage. Playing at home gives you a huge advantage with being able to maximize the number of participants, being familiar with the playing conditions, being acclimatized, having the presence of a strong cheering crowd, etc. At times, the cheers and jeers of the crowd can also influence referees and officials. (Next week, we try to analyze how the country amassed its precious gold haul in more detail.)

But this goes without saying that our athletes have improved so much during the last two years as well. With the full support of the PSC, and the reforms being slowly implemented in Philippine Sports, positive results have flourished. Among them, the emergence of a new breed of stars in Carlos Yulo, Ernest Obiena, Agatha Wong and Kristina Marie Knott. Sports politics, predominant during the Peping era, appears to be in check, although you can still see it in the sports where his mafia continues to control.

Arnis gave the Philippines the most gold medals with 14. Athletics came in second with 11 golds, followed by dancesport (10), taekwondo (8), and 7 each for boxing and wushu. Obstacle course racing and skateboarding followed with 6 golds apiece, with jiu-jitsu taking 5. Overall, our haul of 149 golds, 117 silvers and 121 bronzes were the biggest by far for the country, easily surpassing the 2005 hosting’s 102 golds, 76 silvers and 81 bronzes.

PSC Chairman Butch was ecstatic with his wards’ splendid performance. “This is a result of all the sacrifice and hard work of everyone. This victory is very sweet given the many difficulties we had to face. This win proves that we can achieve a lot when we come together united as one team. I am so proud of our athletes. All of them deserve our respect and love.”

Indeed, the SEA Games domination has been a booster for the country’s image in the region’s sporting world. It is a modest, yet good take-off point for our athletes, and for the youth of today. And it must be sustained.

But this can only be done if we continue to be vigilant in ensuring that the excesses of the past, and any attempts to insert sports politics is contained. As Chairman Butch said, we can certainly do even much better if we are able to resolve the many factional strifes which the Peping regime created. Take the case of the 4 former NSAs disenfranchised by Peping: Dragonboat (0 gold, 2 bronze), Bowling (0 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze), Volleyball (0 gold, 1, silver, 2 bronze) and Table Tennis (0 gold, 1 bronze). On all 4 sports, the Philippines fared below par. We used to dominate in Dragonboating and Bowling. Sadly, on both arenas, our regional competitors rejoice in the fact that we are embroiled in internal conflicts that continue to rob our athletes of their true potential. Given a new environment where Peping’s sports mafia is totally undone, Philippine Sports will have no place to go but UP.

Next week, as we try to scrutinize each sport in more detail, let Chairman Butch’s statement on the imperatives of unity be a reminder to us all. Let the spirit of fair play and justice bring in the needed reforms that will usher us to higher levels of performance. For it is only through justice and unity that we, as a people, can optimize our sports prowess, and redeem ourselves before the sporting world.

Let us continue to support the effort to Reform Philippine Sports. Now.

(Cover Photo courtesy of Sports Inquirer.net. Other photos courtesy of GMA Network, PhilStar, Sagisag, Business World, ABS-CBN News, Al Jazeera, Rappler, Inquirer.net, Manila Bulletin)

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