Country host
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 29, 2019 - 12:00am

A segment of the road going to Subic Bay that is being used for the triathlon in the 30th Southeast Asian Games was found to be full of potholes.

This was narrated by SEAG triathlon gold medalist Nikko Huelgas. How’s that for lack of preparedness?

As head of the Athletes Commission of the Philippine Olympic Committee, however, Huelgas prefers to look on the bright side.

Glitches are common in the games he has attended in the 10 years that he was competing, he told “The Chiefs” this week on Cignal TV’s One News channel.

With the SEA Games formally opening this weekend, Huelgas is hoping for a break in the hail of criticism. Negative vibes affect athletes, he told us, and the Philippine team needs cheering on at this point.

Filipinos are in fact rooting heavily for the home team. The criticism is not directed at them, but at the organizers of the SEA Games. Even Pinoy athletes are complaining.

It’s good to know that President Duterte is reportedly infuriated and wants a probe, especially of reports on possible corrupt deals.

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Last month Vince Dizon, appointed as presidential adviser on flagship projects, was happily reporting that the New Clark City Sports Hub in Tarlac was on track for completion in time for the country’s hosting of the Games.

Vince isn’t as readily available for media interviews these days. The Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee has held a press conference, blaming the media for blowing up the glitches.

I’m no sports fan and I have no sport; I nearly flunked bowling as my physical education subject in university. The only time I become aware of sports stories is when there are scandals involved.

These days I have a high awareness of the SEA Games – mainly because of the complaints from participants and journalists, and the accompanying firestorm from embarrassed Filipinos, expressed on multiple media platforms.

We take pride in our hospitality, and we’re not lacking in individuals and groups highly skilled at efficiently organizing international events and rolling out the red carpet for foreign visitors.

Yet here we are, appalled by the spectacle of drivers picking up arriving athletes at the NAIA up to eight hours late, and then delivering one group to the wrong hotel. How is this possible? High school field trips are better organized.

And then there’s the food. We laugh at the snafu being called “The Hunger Games,” and I’ve heard some genuinely puzzled comments about why vegan participants are complaining about kikiam when it’s made of tofu. But it’s pork wrapped in bean curd sheets, so obviously kikiam is not halal. And there aren’t a lot of places I know that serves palatable kikiam in this country.

Apart from the possibility that what is being served is cheap kikiam with too much flour and only traces of meat, the athletes – our own included – are reportedly complaining about the lack of variety in their daily fare plus the overall unsatisfactory quantity and quality. For better nourishment, two country teams have reportedly stopped relying on the organizers and instead contracted the Milky Way chain to prepare their athletes’ food.

Is the kikiam story fake news? Food is the most basic reflection of hospitality to visitors. Why are we serving Chinese-inspired sausage in the first place? If we want to serve meat sausages, we should urge visitors to sample our excellent Vigan and Calumpit longganiza.

Also, in all the international events that I have attended, a basic question of the organizer is whether I have dietary restrictions. Was the question asked of the SEA Games participants? If it was, surely every Muslim participant in the SEA Games specified no pork and requested halal food. Buddhists might have asked for meatless meals. Hindus don’t want beef.

*      *      *

Nikko Huelgas told us that when he was competing in other countries, he couldn’t remember ever being asked about his dietary preferences.

Often, he said, he bought his own food – in which case, a major consideration for him was the proximity of the source of the food to the sporting venue.

It was also not unusual, he said, to wait in hotel lobbies for the specified check-in time. True enough. But how often does it happen that a foreign team is made to wait for pick-up at the airport for up to eight hours?

The main argument of those who are telling the critics of the Games to calm down is that glitches have happened in other SEAG host countries in the past, so what’s all the fuss about our snafus?

But why do we have to compare our hosting with the worst cases? Shouldn’t we be promoting best practices in hosting international events? Aren’t we supposed to be showcasing the best of the Filipino – not just in sports but also in organizing international gatherings?

Equally important is the need to account for the way people’s money is utilized, especially when it involves billions. Where do our taxes go?

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There are comments that athletes from certain other countries, when it was their turn to host the SEAG, gained unfair home court advantage when glitches caused inconvenience to their foreign competitors.

If this is the way victory is obtained in the SEAG, why bother with the Games? Where is the sportsmanship in cheating, even if indirectly?

I’ve been told that these glitches don’t happen in the Asian Games. So why not just stick to that and just forget the SEAG?

Huelgas does acknowledge that there’s a wide room for improvement in promoting sports development in the Philippines. We need to maximize the use of new technology for training, he said. There ought to be an audit of funding for sports development. And we need to ramp up support for our athletes.

Having announced his retirement from sports, and now chairing a commission composed exclusively of national athletes, what does he think of the support that the country’s athletes are getting from the government and other sectors?

“It’s good, but it can be better,” Huelgas told us.

Much better? “Definitely,” he said.

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