PBA Press Corps Awards Night
September 2, 2008
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I would like to thank Nelson Beltran and the PBA Press Corps for the kind invitation to speak tonight. I know it has been some time since I’ve frequented gatherings with the Press Corps and tonight is a particularly special evening.
First I’d like to congratulate Santa Lucia Realty for their Championship. Buddy (Encarnado), I know it may have been some time coming but the rewards for something hard earned are always sweet. And it is always nice to see one of our former players do well as he successfully made the transition from basketball player to Head Coach. Congratulations Boyet(Fernandez)
I’d also like to congratulate Ginebra San Miguel for their Championship. I know it was hard to compete with all the media attention focused on the Olympics but I am sure their title was just as sweet for them.
In all honesty, I would like to be congratulating our team for another championship and I just hope I don’t have to wait too long for the next one.
I would also like to congratulate Joaqui Trillo for being elected Chairman of the PBA. I am sure he will do the league proud but do not forget your responsibilities as our General Manger.
Finally, I would like to congratulate the awardees this evening for their well deserved recognition.
When I was asked to speak tonight, I wasn’t really given a topic but having the privilege to attend the Beijing Olympics, I thought I would talk about the Games. The Beijing Olympics will be remembered as one of the most spectacular Olympic Games and was a fitting debut to the People’s Republic of China which has not only emerged as an economic super-power but is now an athletic super-power.
My family and I had the opportunity to see some incredible accomplishments. We saw the Chinese dominate in gymnastics and diving. We saw history as Michael Phelps won his 7th and 8th gold medals. And I dare say that I will probably not see something as impressive athletically as this again in my lifetime. And we saw Usain Bold destroy the field and break the 9.70 barrier in the 100-meter dash while easing up his last 30 meters.
We also witnessed the agony of defeat. To the rest of the world, Yao Ming may be the most recognized Chinese athlete but in China, it is Liu Xiang (the Athens 110 m. hurdle Olympic Champion and former world record holder.) I cannot begin to describe the emotions of the Chinese in the Bird nest when Liu Xiang had to withdraw because of his Achilles heel injury. It was as if the breath had been knocked out of the thousands of Chinese fans. Almost immediately after Liu Xiang withdrew they began to cry and literally hundreds got up and left their seats. To many Chinese, their Olympics were over.
But what I really want to talk about tonight is about the Philippines at the Beijing Olympics. We sent a small delegation of athletes. Fifteen (15) to be exact which was matched by almost double the number of coaches and dignitaries. Not a good sign when more non-athletes are in the delegation. Perhaps what served as an omen was the breaking of tradition and not letting an athlete (swimmer Miguel Molina) carry the flag in for the Opening Ceremonies. Don’t get me wrong, I think Pacquiao is a great boxer and a Filipino sports hero. But the flag bearing honors are for an athlete who competes in the games and I felt very bad for Molina.
True our performance by international standards was not up to par.
What disappointed me most upon my return was to see how our Filipino Olympians were regarded in the press. Headlines such as :
Debacle in China
Another Dark Day for Philippine Sports
Team Philippines Ends Beijing Campaign in Defeat
Those were certainly not headlines that anyone would want to be greeted by after years of athletic sacrifice.
I have attached various articles to my speech for reference so I may accurately quote themI mean no disrespect to certain articles or authors but included them to share my perspective.
The first article of interest was entitled “Olympic Debacle”. The author started off by saying “Even before the Philippine team left for the Beijing Olympics, I knew we little chance for a gold medal. We might even come home with a big fat zero.” However, the author went on to acknowledge that our swimmers broke several SEA Games record and congratulated past Olympic medal winners and the boxers in particular.
Indeed we did several bright spots with the Filipino swimmers setting 6 new Philippine records and 2 SEA Games records.
In her article entitled “Postscript to the Olympics”, Rina Jimenez-David took a different approach and suggested that we could or should take solace in the feats of other Olympic performances that were not gold medals or world records. She wrote, “But amidst the disappointment and expected gnashing of teeth over the Philippines’ poor showing in Beijing, there were stories of consolation for the Filipino trying to find the positive in the recent Olympics.” Rina’s article went on to describe an athlete from Somalia, Samia Yusuf Omar, (who was one of only two in their delegation) who competed in the 200-meter dash and came in dead last. What made this story so compelling is that even though the top runners in her heat were already on their victory laps by the time the Samia crossed the finish line, the crowd rose to cheer her on.
The author captured the essence of the Olympic spirit when she wrote, “Still, not even her sorry circumstances were enough to damped Samia’s competitive spirit. Asked how she felt when the gallery united to cheer her on, Samia replied that she wished she would be cheered the next time because she was swimming and not because (they only wanted to encourage me)”. How poignant indeed.
This led me to another intriguing article but from abroad. In the International Hearld Tribune, Christopher Clarey’s article “Games Also Mean Coming in Last” was poetic. He wrote about Petero Okatai of the Cook Islands, Erica Barolina of the USA and Genny Pagliaro from Italy. What these three Olympians had in common was that they all finished last in their respective events.
Although the Olympics creed is “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (Swifter, Higher, Stronger), these three athletes were not the swiftest or the strongest. Petero Okatai had planned on being an Olympic runner until injury forced him to quit and with his Olympic dream still fresh, he tried his hand at swimming. However, with no Olympic pools to train in, he swam in a lagoon until he found a hotel pool that measured 17 meters in length compared to a 50 meter Olympic pool. And he had to train while hotel guests also used the pool, occasionally bumping into them as he did his laps. Okatai swam the 100 meter breaststroke in Beijing and finished nearly eight seconds slower than the next person who competed in this event. Six seconds in Olympic swimming is an eternity. Disappointed not so much because he finished last but because he failed to match or better his personal record, he returned to the practice pool the following day and did a time trial just to prove to himself that he could do better…and he did.
Erica Bartolina’s hardship began when she was only 4 months old. While her mother was pulling into the driveway of their farm, their car was hit from behind and with Erica in the car seat; a pair of trimming shears skidded across the dashboard and poked her in the eye. She ended up needing a prosthetic eye. But this only strengthened her resolve and became a good athlete through high school and college and was the third qualifier on the U.S. Olympic women’s pole vault team.
While training at the team camp in Dalian, Erica misjudged the jump and her pole struck her chin that resulted in stitches, a mild concussion and whiplash which prompted the team doctor to order her to skip the Olympic Opening Ceremony. But her Olympic tragedy came on the day of her event. Having faulted on her first two attempts at 12-1 ¼ (which was a relatively conservative height for Erica), she proceeded on her final attempt only to knock the bar down. “her first and perhaps only Olympics were over without clearing a height, and she walked distraught towards her coach in the stands, hoping irrationally that he could change the irrevocable.”
And what about Genny Pagliaro, a diminutive weightlifter (4 feet 9 inches, 104 pounds) and the daughter of an Italian Olympic weightlifter. She had won the gold medal at the European Championships in April of 2008. But at the Olympics she missed all three attempts at a relatively easy weight and like Bartolina, her Games were over without even having successfully completed the attempt. The silver lining in this story is that at 19 years of age, Pagliaro is still young enough to compete in London. And she returned to her home in Italy where she is one of the most famous people in her community. In her words, “this was my first Olympics; I wanted to do well, but I was overcome with emotion, and that played a dirty trick on me. But I know this will help me in the future, because I won’t let it happen again.” Spoken like a fierce competitor.
These athletes were welcomed home as Olympic heroes, even if they did not win gold.
Going back to the Philippines campaign in Beijing, Gerry Carpio quoted Butch Ramirez, PSC Chairman, in his article “Filipinos Can Learn from Thai Experience”, “Talent identity should start very early and those chosen must have the commitment to train long – 8 – 12 years – to win a medal in the Olympics”. This is true. But what the Thais have done is to focus on sports with multiple medal opportunities and sports that are suited for the Thai body type. These sports are primarily in the lighter weight classes of boxing, weightlifting and taekwondo. According to Carpio, the majority of Thailand’s 21 Olympic medals have come from these sports in recent Games.
This perspective is relevant depending on what price we are willing to pay to win an Olympic Gold Medal. A couple of years back, I had the chance to go to a Beijing gymnastics school. There are more than 3,000 sports schools in China and quite a few of them focus on gymnastics (given China’s expertise in this event). However, what I saw there was truly shocking. I saw young girls…actually toddlers 4 or 5 years of age being put through a very demanding regimen, with their coaches pushing them beyond limits. They would lean on their legs as they have their legs spread suspended to enhance their flexibility. That’s just part of the price these athletes have to pay.
What about Cheng Fei, the Chinese gymnast who was taken to one of these sports schools by her parents at the age of 3? First her parents took her to a table tennis school but when the coach declines her, she was sent to a gymnastics school and then became a gymnastic icon after years of training and hardship. After all, winning a gold medal in the Olympics would mean gainful employment for her family and price money of $150,000 (a huge some of money in any country but particularly so in China).
So, is the pursuit of Olympic Gold the burden and responsibility of the country or the individual? We have all heard about the stories of countless Olympians who were inspired by a former Olympian or Olympic feat.
As a young boy, I personally recall watching Mark Spitz win his seven gold medals in Munich which became a defining moment for me to focus on competitive swimming. I wanted to swim in the Olympics. Sptiz’ feat motivated me to train for the next 12 years (4 hours a day, 6 days a week and 50 weeks a year. Although I did not have the privilege to make the Olympic team, I expect I would have been devastated had I been one and then be subjected to the negative publicity that our current crop of Olympians were presented with. You see, it is just a great honor to be considered an Olympian and walk in to that stadium during the Parade of Nations.
Where am I going with this? In Gil Cabacungan’s article “Olympic Blame Hunt Kicks Off”, he reports about the throngs of politicians who want to investigate why the Philippines did not win any medals . I wonder how many of these politicians have any idea how hard these athletes work just to become an Olympian?!
Of consolation was Senator Chiz Escudero’s sobering remarks saying “there is no need to squabble or finger point now. The Olympics are over and done with, we need to move on, but we have to learn from the mistakes we have committed.” I hope we do.
This leads me to another article I cam across from former PBA Chairman Rey Gamboa entitled “London Olympics: Dream or Nightmare”.
In his article, he talks about the need for sports officials and leaders as well as others to “initiate the reforms to put Philippine sports back on its feet. He goes to state that “we must heave ourselves out of the old cycle of training athletes a month or two before the Games, offering heft bonuses that none of them could realistically claim, laud losers for at least giving their best shot, and then come up with declarations pertaining to the need to institute reforms in the national sports programs.”
I tend to agree that many of these multi-million peso rewards are “Johnny come lately” incentives when the funds should have been invested at the front end to give our athletes the coaching, facilities and nutrition to be competitive. And if the focus is already on London I regret to rain on this parade as it takes as many years to make a world champion and four years might not be enough.
Now let me segue to my other topic but first I need to explain why I have taken the position I have about the Philippines involvement in Olympic basketball.
Mr. Gamboa also states that fielding a Philippine Olympic basketball team is a tall order, if not unrealistic. I tend to agree. The game of basketball has come a long way since our last stint in the Olympics and it is largely played “above the rim.” The average height of the three medalist teams was 6’7 ½”. And many of these tall players can even play the guard position. The cost of developing a team sport is exponentially higher than say developing individual sports with multiple medal opportunities. I think we should take a step back and review where we can achieve our highest returns on investment, assuming Olympic medals are the basis for computing returns.
I had the pleasure to hear Peter Ueberroth speak about China’s ascension to Olympic dominance. If you recall, Peter Ueberroth was the Chairman of the highly successful Los Angeles Olympics and his business model is the model that has been used by all other Games since 1984. He proved that a city need not go into debt to host the Games and in fact, LA was profitable.
Also recall that the 1984 Games was boycotted by the former USSR. Ueberroth, however, was able to convince the People’s Republic of China to attend the LA Olympic Games and that was the beginning of their mission to become an athletic power house. In the 1984 Games, PROC won 15 Gold medals and finished 4th, just one gold more than Italy. This led to a systematic build up by investing and picking sports that offered multiple medal opportunities.
Fast forward to the Beijing Olympics and the PROC won a total of 51 gold medals and 100 medals in all, making them the undisputed champion of those Olympics. What is important to note is that many of these medals came in sports that offer multiple medal opportunities such as diving, gymnastics, boxing, taekwondo, table tennis, shooting. And yes, PROC did win a few team medals as well but they have the financial war chest to support individual as well as team sports.
So, why is there is such a clamor for the PBA to support an Olympic berth? I can understand National pride. I can certainly understand the desire to be an Olympian. Even old hands like Jason Kidd still seemed excited by the prospect of winning an Olympic gold medal…of course he had redemption on his mind.
But if our desire is to win a medal or medals and hopefully a gold medal, should we not make our investment in areas where we have multiple possibilities? And should we not focus on sports where we have a higher likelihood of success? Many of our Asian neighbors have already accepted this reality and have adopted strategies with success.
So in closing, while I respect the freedom of speech that we practice, I would ask that we also consider the implications of the pointed pen when an article demeans the efforts of our Olympians. Each and every one of the fifteen Olympian went there with the notion of doing his best. All of them invested years of training to achieve their dream of being an Olympian. Perhaps some of them had dreams of even being a medalist. And perhaps some of them who are still young enough still have that dream. But let’s not spoil that dream and perhaps be more constructive with the power of the pen and ask the questions as to what can be done better towards our quest for future medals…and keep that dream realistic…but keep that dream alive.
Thank you for your time and the opportunity to share my perspective. Good evening.