Olympic dreams
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - February 3, 2020 - 12:00am

From polio to Taal Volcano to the first death in our country from the novel coronavirus, we’ve lurched from one crisis to the next and we’re just entering the second month of the year, and the second week of the Year of the Rat.

So we’re latching on to at least one piece of good news before the month drew to a close: Hidilyn Diaz might yet fulfill the country’s Olympic dreams, after she bagged three gold medals in the 2020 Roma Weightlifting World Cup. After her performance in Italy, Hidilyn reportedly has her sights set on the Tokyo Summer Games.

I’m no sports fan, but I understand what sporting victories do to national pride. Other countries pour considerable resources into sports development. The funds go into encouraging their citizens to engage in sports from childhood, and then picking those with potential, training them and providing support so they can emerge at the top of their game.

In our country, we’ve had the impression for a long time that too much of the funds for sports development, limited as they are, end up financing the travel and other personal expenses of sports officials, who also seem to be constantly bickering. 

Our athletes often have to dip into their own pockets and find their own sponsors in the private sector if they want stringent training especially overseas, which is never cheap, and if they want world-class equipment and facilities.

Often, our athletes get the much-needed sponsorships only when they have already risen to the top.

*      *      *

Hidilyn, who has reaped honors for the country in the past, now has an easier time raising funds for her training. She might yet shine in the Olympics.

Another Olympic hopeful is currently training right in the host city. Carlos Yulo is training for Olympic glory while on a scholarship in Tokyo sponsored by the Japan Olympic Association. His academic program is adapted to his training regimen.

Like most accomplished athletes, Yulo entered his sport early. His grandfather thought the seven-year-old boy performing somersaults on the playground had special talent, and brought him to the Gymnastics Association of the Philippines (GAP), which later supported his high school education at Adamson University. Yulo got further training for free at the Rizal Memorial Complex, under the aegis of the Philippine Sports Commission.

In 2013, Yulo went to Tokyo to pursue a degree in literature at the Teiko University in Itabashi.

Turning 20 this month, Yulo is built like a sprite. When he faced us on “The Chiefs” last December on Cignal TV’s One News channel, on the eve of his return to Japan, I thought he was just 12 or 13.

GAP president Cynthia Carreon told us that Yulo has the perfect body build for gymnastics. Stressing that she was not disparaging the Filipino passion for basketball, she stressed that the typical Pinoy is built better for gymnastics rather than basketball where height matters.

With Yulo’s world-class performance, Carreon is hoping that more Filipinos will be encouraged to develop skills in gymnastics worthy of international competitions.

*      *      *

For sure, there has been heightened interest. But when budding gymnasts look for training facilities, they are bound to be disappointed.

Carreon told us that the country has only about a dozen facilities for gymnastics. About 10 are in Metro Manila, but even the best ones don’t have the complete equipment for all the gymnastics events.

Outside Metro Manila, only Cebu City has a facility. But when she visited, Carreon said it was a letdown, starting with the hallway that lacked padded carpeting; if a gymnast slips and falls, the concrete floor could cause injuries.

“I almost died,” Carreon told us. “I said, this cannot be.”

There is also a lack of coaches. Since 2016, Yulo has been training under Japanese coach Munehiro Kugemiya, who has been sufficiently exposed to Pinoys that his conversational Filipino is now better than his English.

Japanese discipline undoubtedly contributed to Yulo’s gold-winning performance at the 2019 World Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart and his two golds and several silvers at last year’s Southeast Asian Games.

He did not expect his win in Stuttgart, Yulo told us. But achievements can be self-reinforcing. If he succeeds in the Tokyo Summer Games, it will be the first gold for the Philippines since the country began competing in the Olympics in 1924 in Paris.

*      *      *

There’s another Filipino aiming for a gold at the Tokyo Summer Games: Kristina Knott, hailed as Asia’s fastest woman after she topped the record of Filipina sprinter Lydia de Vega.

Knott had also faced us on The Chiefs together with her American coach, Rohsaan Griffin, after the SEA Games. Now an advertising graduate, she said she could not afford to neglect her academics while training because she would lose her sports scholarship.

There are similar scholarships in the Philippines. But Carreon is hoping that a sports school that caters to both the academic and sports training needs of athletes will be established in the Philippines. This will address the concerns of parents who don’t support their children’s passion for sports out of fear that it would be at the expense of academics.

Such parental resistance may be blunted if the athlete starts earning top money for his sport. This is the case for several of the kids on the Sibol team, who are reputed to be getting seven-figure paychecks regularly.

Not everyone, however, can earn that kind of money, and esport is not even part of mainstream sports yet. And not everyone can be a billionaire pro boxer like Manny Pacquiao.

The average athlete still needs to get formal education and pursue other means of livelihood while indulging in his sport.

Carreon is hopeful that Yulo’s medals will inspire other budding gymnasts to pursue their dream. Gymnastics, she said, could also introduce children to other sports, since it requires discipline, balance, strength and flexibility.

“Gymnastics is a very, very good sport for the Filipino – more than basketball,” Carreon stressed.

She’s right – unless they level the playing field and introduce different categories in basketball, based on the players’ height, weight and other physical attributes, like in boxing. If this happens, Pacquiao might become a basketball superstar.

Even Carlos Yulo likes basketball. But he knows his limitations – and his strengths. With rigorous training and a lot of support, he might yet give our country that elusive Olympic gold.

NOVEL CORONAVIRUS POLIO TAAL VOLCANO YEAR OF THE RAT
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