Million-dollar SEAG cauldron
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - November 18, 2019 - 12:00am

The gargantuan P6 billion budget for the Philippines’ Southeast Asian Games will, for the most part, really have nothing to do with the Philippine athletes’ performance in the Games.

A source in the country’s national sports hierarchy has furnished The Star with what appears to be a copy of the confidential budget for the country’s staging of the SEA Games. Copies are supposedly in the possession of the Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee (PHISGOC), the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC), the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC), the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), both houses of congress, and, hopefully, Malacañang. There is an obvious reason why the document is meant to be confidential. Some of the payments listed – specifically under PHISGOC – appear at first glance to be greatly overpriced, the kinds of numbers you’d fall out of your chair reading.

One example is the exorbitant amount allocated for the cauldron for the lighting of the SEA Games flame, the solemn, symbolic ceremonial opening of the Games themselves. This is a practice that harks back to the pre-modern Olympic Games, when the Greeks would use mirrors to light a flame at the site of the first Olympics and light a torch from the flame. The torch would then be passed by hand from one runner to another until it reached the location of the next Olympics, where the torch was used to light the flame at the opening ceremonies there.

For these SEA Games, the design of the cauldron alone cost P4,400,000. The site construction of the cauldron’s foundation is priced at P13,440,000. The physical construction and installation of the cauldron itself is P32 million. With another P6 million item for wrist tags on that sublist, the total for the cauldron alone is – hold your breath – P55,920,000. That is the most expensive campfire in the country’s history. Over a million US dollars for what in many cases usually resembles a giant wok. And like a wedding dress, it will only really be used once, with the flame to be extinguished at the closing ceremonies. In over three decades of covering the Olympics, Asian Games, SEA Games and other multi sport events, I cannot for the life of me recall what any of their cauldrons looked like. Will this one be so distinctive as to be remembered for years to come?

As for the performers in the opening and closing ceremonies themselves, the original idea of bringing in Bruno Mars (who is half-Filipino) was scuttled, as was the option of inviting the Black-Eyed Peas, who would have charged close to $1 million to perform a medley of their relatively old songs. Be that as it may, the total amount to be paid for the alternative performers still reached P73,251,550. And mind you, the listed talent fees for Tony Award winner Lea Salonga and Maestro Ryan Cayabyab lare but a small fraction of that.

For those who have experience in organizing events, there are many ways to keep costs down. Some items may be sponsored in exchange for advertising exposure. Barter deals may be struck. Donors may cover certain costs. Discounts can be negotiated. Remember that public funds are being used for this one-shot event.

Meanwhile, with less than two weeks left before the opening of the Games, and with some of the other countries’ athletes already in the Philippines, there are still some sports which have not been able to order the equipment that they will use in the Games.

“We just write the individual checks that we are told to prepare,” one PHISGOC staff told this writer. “But as to which sports have already been given their checks to pay for their equipment and which haven’t, we don’t know.”

For its part, the Philippine Sports Commission, the government’s lead agency for sport, has already spent over P1 billion in foreign trips for its athletes and teams, as well as another P300 million for additional training and upgrading of coaches, trainers, sports medicine practitioners, and so on. These funds are not part of the SEA Games budget. This is par for the course for the PSC, which is mandated to develop grassroots sports and prepare elite athletes year-round. At the moment, none of this is – frankly – aimed at the SEA Games. The target is to qualify as many athletes as possible for their individual sports’ world championships and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and have them perform well at both. All of the funds spent are the regular monies allocated by congress through PAGCOR and the National Sports Development Fund (NSDF). The funding of the SEA Games comes from DBM and, hopefully, sponsors, and goes through PHISGOC.

PHISGOC, for its part is supposed to be an ad hoc body whose sole purpose is to mount this single SEA Games. All SEA Games organizing committees, in intent and purpose, are meant to be dissolved after their country’s hosting. If PHISGOC is indeed a foundation that intends to operate even after the SEA Games, then that is another matter entirely, and must be looked into. It means there is an intent for the organization to exist and function beyond the 30th SEA Games. To what end? Also, a foundation has unique privileges and exemptions under the law. Sen. Frank Drilon is, therefore, onto something. 

Unfortunately, the Commission on Audit (COA) only has post-audit powers. By that time, the band of merry men responsible for any overspending will have disbanded and scurried off to different gold-plated places from which to wash their hands while freely pointing fingers at one another. 

More in an upcoming column.

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