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Filipino world champions: Against the odds in PH

Hidilyn Diaz’s victory represents the story of many Filipinos who overcame poverty by daring to dream and work hard for it, and showed that if one looks hard enough for support and are willing to sacrifice, Filipinos too can reach the top of the world.

Hidilyn along with Manny Pacquiao and Efren “Bata” Reyes, among the other greats, all experienced difficulties yet became world champions. Stories that would become legends now paint a Diaz practicing with water bottles and bamboo poles that recalls Pacquiao doing sit-ups on a plank of wood tied to a tree. Manny was coached by an uncle and embraced competitive boxing to help feed his family. Bata also lived with an uncle who owned a pool hall where he learned to hustle to support his eight siblings.

Support, high-quality coaches needed

A podium finish is a team effort. Hidilyn’s Chinese coach Gao Kaiwen also doubled as her chef to help her maximize her P20,000 a month allowance in a display of adapting by frugality. President Rodrigo Duterte extended P2 million on top of the P5 million that the law provides for her 2016 silver-medal performance in the Rio Olympics plus the P100,000 additional allowance to each of the 2021 Filipino Olympians. The private sector also plays a role not only after the victory, but during the more arduous climb as with most cases of our athletes even those who don’t reach the limelight. Yulo’s Japanese coach apologized for the gymnast’s losing – represents the Asian way: don’t blame others; take responsibility!

The family of Filipino figure skater Michael Christian Martinez recognizes the help of Winter Olympics Russian gold medalist-turned-trainer Ilia Kulik in his athletic career, apart from British John Nicks. In 2014, Michael became the first Southeast Asian to participate in the Winter Olympics. A world-class figure skater from a tropical country that has only two recreational (not competitive-level) skating rinks.

Basic courtesy wanting

Like many others, Wesley So is a different kind of loss. We lost a clear world chess champion in the making from the Aquino 3rd administration due to corruption and petty politics. Frustrated, Wesley almost dropped out of chess completely. “To be poor and unconnected in the Philippines is to be trash,” he said. In 2014, officials of the National Chess Federation of the Philippines (NCFP) even ignored a FIDE letter informing them of So’s desire to switch federations. Martinez’s letter to the Aquino 3rd administration asking for assistance was also left unanswered. His mom had to mortgage their house for his training. The private donors were the family’s main lifeline, just enough to pay for the fees of international competitions, but not enough to pay for coaches.

Rising tennis star Alex Eala had to experience the bureaucratic “runaround” for reimbursements. The Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) has promised to rectify, hopefully improvements will be institutionalized.

Many of our athletes, artists, scientists and overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) find better appreciation of their talents abroad than at home. Eugene Torre, Asia’s first grandmaster and the only one in the world in 1976 to beat the then-reigning world champion Anatoly Karpov, said, “Wesley wouldn’t have reached such heady heights had he not packed his bags to go to the US.” (Spin.ph).

‘Chattering-classes’ politicizing Hidilyn’s win do not help

Did Rappler, Inquirer, CNN or ABS-CBN ask if any official in the Aquino administration ever apologized for the deaths of the SAF44, thousands during Super Typhoon “Yolanda” (Haiyan) and children from Dengvaxia? Yet the same media headline reports such as “Palace still no apology for Diaz’s inclusion in the matrix… forget ‘matrix’ faux pas, Palace now cheering….”

And why did the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) have to politicize Hidilyn’s victory by using an old social-media picture with her wearing a “political” shirt? She said, “Sa totoo lang bigay po ‘yon shirt… sa akin and ang alam ko kung atin, atin… pero siyempre hindi ko puwedeng pakialaman kung ano ‘yung international dispute diyan between how many countries (Honestly, the shirt was just given to me and what I know is what’s ours is ours. But of course, I can’t meddle with the international dispute between how many countries).” Did the media also question our athletes on their stands regarding the US invading countries that have led to millions of civilians killed or that Philippine law is not applicable to US soldiers who commit crimes on Filipinos?

Ironically, Hidilyn’s opponent and Chinese world record holder Liao Qiuyun said, “I really respect [her]… She did a better job and it is nice for all the people that were supporting her.” Instead of highlighting Liao’s sportsmanship, most media turned her words into “us vs them” statements, when they could have taken the momentous occasion to call on all Filipinos to emulate our Olympians.

The ultimate spirit of sports is not all about winning or losing, but about discipline, self-improvement, and cooperation. The motto of Tokyo 2021 is “United by Emotion,” reflecting the “power of sports to bring together people from diverse backgrounds… including the billions watching … [to] come together and understand that there is more that unites than divides them.” ABS-CBN Karl Cedrick Basco’s article “PH weightlifting boss used West Philippine Sea issue to motivate Hidilyn” that quotes Samahang Weightlifting Ng Pilipinas chief Monico Puentevella fuels exactly the mentality that has led to wars and what the Olympics aims to overcome.

The Philippines’ first Olympic gold was achieved with the help of a Chinese coach, regardless of ongoing issues. Should we say that Philippine victories are not Filipino because our athletes have issues with some Philippine agencies? Should we not thank the Malaysian homeowner where Hidilyn trained because Malaysia refuses to discuss Sabah? Did we not honor Aquino even when he ordered Filipinos not to fight over Sabah?

Sen. Pilar Juliana “Pia” Cayetano in an answer to Sen. Ana Theresia “Risa” Hontiveros said partisan politics demoralizes our athletes. It also stifles our progress as a people, as a country.

The Olympic Games aims to raise humanity beyond politics.

Don’t Let the Critics Mess It Up Again! Call out those who are the obstacles to a world class Filipino!

PSC Chairman William “Butch” Ramirez calls our Olympians “our new heroes… comparable to soldiers who sacrifice their lives for the country.” Like our OFWs, they should be both sources of inspiration and lesson. The challenge now is how can we do better for them, to build a country together where we can all grow and go for gold.

Austin Ong

Austin Ong helped establish one of the most active chess clubs in the US which also supports young Filipino chess players. He has also assisted the Department of Trade and Industry in organizing events to help Filipino entrepreneurs. He taught global developments at De La Salle University and co-authored “PH-CN: Interplay Between Domestic Politics and Globalization.”

Also published in Manila Times.

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