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A game of honor

BANGKOK, Thailand – It is an unusual game, tchoukball, having rules and procedures peculiar to it. Even more unusual is the level of compliance. In an age where not following regulations is often misconstrued as individualism, tchoukball is a breath of fresh air. Particularly in the Philippine setting, and particularly now, when we ache for principled leaders and athletes, it is a refuge from the arrogance and selfishness that has marred Philippine sports in recent months. The recent, loud problems at the highest levels of the Philippine Olympic Committee and several national sports associations, and the current crisis at the very top of the PBA leaves us shaking our heads and sighing in deep disappointment. As you will see, it is something that we need, a sport that promotes values to the highest degree, rejecting one-upmanship and fostering camaraderie and principled competition not just on paper, but in practice.

That realization is particularly striking as games are being played at the Southeast Asian Tchoukball Championship (SEATBC) at the Ramkhamhaeng University here. After all, Thailand is a country that has never been conquered and has a strong cultural identity, but which, in some places, has had a global reputation for letting the pleasures of the flesh get the better of it. As one feasts on the trademark spicy tom yum soup, phad thai noodles and more of the singular, aromatic staples of Thai cuisine, these realizations become more pronounced. Character is what we seek, the balance between uniform, universal values and a personality that is decidedly one’s own.

So what is tchoukball? 

In a nutshell, the indoor version features seven players a side, each attempting to rebound a small leather ball of a square, trampoline-like frame and score by making the ball bounce off the floor before the other team intercepts it. Evolving from a mere practice game for handball, it is a game seemingly culled from another time: no contact, fast-paced and expecting fair play and honesty at all times.

On an area just about the size of a volleyball court, a player must pass or try to score within three seconds. One can only take up to three steps when holding a ball, and the jump step common in basketball counts as two steps here. A team can only make a maximum of three passes before attempting to score, and anyone can score off either frame at either end. Therefore, one has to be skilled in offense and defense in equal measure. An error in execution of an offensive play results in a point given to the other team. Each match consists of three 12-minute periods.

But what sets tchoukball apart is the high level of trust in one another, teammate and opponent alike. It is very common for a player to also be a coach and referee, quickly pulling a gray official’s uniform over a uniform still soaked with sweat from a just-concluded match. Yet, it is extremely rare, almost unheard of, for a call to be questioned, even if the whistle-blower is a rival from a recent match in an on-going tournament. In an era where sport has become suspicious, this may be considered either a throwback or counter-cultural.

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And yet, there is more. If the tchoukball should land on the floor as a defender is catching it, that player is expected to call it even if the officials did not, even though doing so is an admission of error and costs his team a point. Players are expected to get out of the way of opponents’ passes, positioning themselves to be ready to defend only after the attempt has been hurled at the frame or goal. Blocking another player is an automatic infraction, and resets play.

“These are the values we want to teach the youth,” says Raymund Jamelo, president of the Southeast Asian Tchoukball Federation. “It is a wholesome, non-contact sport everyone can play, and everyone involved are all on the same page from the international federation to the youngest players.”

There are other things you will notice. There is no animosity among teams, and many in Southeast Asia have a majority of high school and college athletes. Players mingle freely between matches. And after every match, teams have pictures taken together, holding up each others’ flags. Every match, every single time. Rank earns respect, but not entitlement, and carries the responsibility of service. Officials are personally responsible for everyone’s welfare, shepherds of a trusting flock. And when they get together at the end of each day, the conduct and results of the games are reserved for discussion only at formal meetings. Yes, it is like this for the 40-odd countries that tchoukball is already being played in.

Seeing all this begs reflection, a long, hard look in the mirror. Why isn’t sport like this everywhere, at every level in the Philippines? Why is there frequently somebody trying to get away with something underhanded? And why do officials often tolerate it, or look the other way?

In tchoukball, honor is simply the overriding rule. It just is, and even in all their efforts to be inclusive, it simply is done this way, period. The international federation, the FITB, has already expelled at least one member country’s association for not being fair. There is no compromise.

We have much to learn from this game of honor. We need something that makes us better people because we want to be.

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