That other life as a sportswriter
ZOETROPE - Juaniyo Arcellana (The Philippine Star) - December 9, 2019 - 12:00am

Must be happenstance that the Southeast Asian Games are being held in Manila late in the year, as it has been in the past every 14 years or so in 2005 and, before that, 1991. In 1981 the games were also held here, serving as prelude to Diay de Vega’s ruling the 100 and 200 meters in the Asian Games the following year.

Sports has always been a kind of tonic for Filipinos, as it is for other nationalities who naturally take pride in their anthem being played whenever the flag is raised during medal ceremonies at the podium. The popular ad catchphrase, “di lang pang pamilya, pang isports pa” rings true for anyone who leads an all-around lifestyle strength in diversity.

Well, sport has produced (or more exactly inspired) some great passages in journalism that certainly could qualify as literature, not that we’re ranging one against the other. The poet Cesar Aquino once described first seeing the young Diay run at a Palarong Pambansa in the regions as “like an epiphany.” Sportswriter Al Mendoza in the past wrote how Luisito Espinosa was knocked out by a foreign opponent at Araneta Coliseum, the boxer dropping “like a gunnysack” to the canvas.

One of the more memorable reads in our youth was Hunter S. Thompson covering the great fights of Muhammad Ali, and instead of a photographer he had artist Ralph Steadman illustrating in the still alt-rag Rolling Stone magazine, resulting in another take of fear and loathing in Las Vegas, Zaire, Madison Square Garden. Always high on something if not sport itself, Thompson and Steadman complemented each other’s work and rewrote the method of sports coverage with tons of humor and self-depreciation.

Back closer to home, our own local commentators have occasionally made a living out of hyperbole, as with one sportscaster likening a basketball team’s stinginess in letting opponents score to a “Venus flytrap defense,” and another punning Comoros’ name during a parade of nations with that of a colleague’s.

Full of good cheer these guys are, and what a treat it was during boyhood on late Saturday afternoons when an advance copy of the Sunday Times Magazine would be thrown over the gate, there to see the write-ups on sports heroes by Recah Trinidad: Rudolph Kutch is Mr. Basketball 1969 after outscoring legendary Shin Dong-pa in the first half of an Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC, now FIBA Asia) championship game.

Wasn’t till much later that finally met Recah, himself a poet with a Palanca, in his digs at the old Expressweek magazine in Port Area. Somewhere, maybe at Peter Lee’s, he would consume two bottles of gin bilog right before our adolescent eyes, the mentoring not so much for sportswriting but also for capacity to hold one’s drink.

He said the real stories are in the watering holes beside the sporting venues, including Dinky’s on the slope alongside the former Ultra, Rizal Memorial Cafe on Vito Cruz, that restaurant by the former Fiesta Carnival in Cubao behind Araneta Coliseum where the gang would hang out Al, Ave, Ding and Dalena who was their Steadman.

Fourteen years living off Vito Cruz from the late 1980s into early 2000s, armed with a press ID that gave virtually a ringside view of the sports events at the Rizal Memorial and environs. Benjie Paras of the UP Maroons trying unsuccessfully to defend State U’s lone title. Ryan Papa outswimming his rivals in the SEA Games and in the apartment on Conchu Street the firstborn would marvel at the black and white TV and the commentator excitedly saying the name “Papa,” the toddler thinking it was her old man who was pulling away. Chess Olympiad at the PICC with the European girls in their miniskirts, including the Polgar sisters zugzwanging their way into spectators’ heart of desire.

Interviewing Diay de Vega at the Rizal oval track with her fiancé from Meralco hovering nearby; shooting the breeze with the Castillejo sisters at the tennis courts, both for a now defunct leftist magazine. The distinctive rank smell in the dugouts, a combination of camphor, oil of winter green, possible ganja, sweat, saliva, urine, among other body fluids that conjure up a dream to excel despite the odds.

The Eugene Torre versus Nigel Short showdown, with the Briton sometimes shushing the audience. Was this a foreshadowing of the Wesley So vs. Magnus Carlsen faceoff? Then, farther afield, interviewing the wonder teen Akiko Thomson at her dad’s American chamber of commerce office in Makati.

Somewhere in the present-day apartment is a book by Gloria Garchitorena Goloy about being a housewife in the world of sports. One of the articles described a darkened neighborhood street suddenly rising up in celebration the night the Philippines won the FIBA Asia on home soil in 1973. Even on black and white Magnavox TV that moment was an epiphany.

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