Happy for the athletes
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - December 21, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — It’s a great time to be a Filipino athlete. In the aftermath of the Southeast Asian Games, the winners are being feted and handed rewards, bonuses and sponsorships, and deservedly so. It has been so long that national athletes have been under compensated and not being given what they needed to perform at their utmost.

As Winston Churchill said, “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.” The SEA Games lasted less than two weeks. But the planning and preparation took two years. Thanks largely to the foresight, integrity and professionalism of the Philippine Sports Commission, Filipino athletes were prepared for any contingency, regardless of what the opposition (or even their own organizers) would throw at them.

In the past, sports officials’ shortcomings were myriad. In the 12 SEA Games this writer has covered since the 1980’s, we have seen so many ways athletes were shortchanged, and they were infuriating. Tiny gymnasts parading in the opening ceremonies in oversized track suits. Travel bags that fell apart on the way to the athletes’ village. Coaches and officials who smoked in their presence. Limited or no laundry during competition. Allowances being skimmed or not given at all. No security. Poor accommodations. 

Most of that has been systematically eliminated, and it started in 2016, even before the idea of hosting the 2019 Games was still an idea that hadn’t become fully formed. Repeatedly, returning PSC chair Butch Ramirez instructed national sports associations to liquidate previous expenditures or be denied fresh funds. What most people did not get to know was that one of President Duterte’s initial orders was for the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (PAGCOR) to address the intentional misinterpretation of the National Sports Development Fund (NSDF) Law. The law states that PSC gets five percent off the top. For 24 years, that five percent was taken after 50 percent of PAGCOR’s earnings was remitted to the national treasury. From 1992 to 2016, that simple reversal of the deduction of the PSC’s five percent share of PAGCOR’s monthly revenue caused a cumulative shortfall ranging from P12 billion to P15 billion. The President would have none of that, and fixed.

Still, despite the windfall, some NSAs refused to cooperate, banking on past experience of holding the PSC hostage or simply having their way with past administrations. So the PSC simply went around them and disbursed the funds directly to the athletes, even at international meets. Anything to keep the athletes focused on performing. Obviously, it has worked. Under further instructions from the President to not let the SEA Games fail, the PSC disbursed an additional P522 million (on top of the total P6 billion budget for the Games) to plug any holes and prop up PHISGOC’s and the NSAs’ shortcomings. That’s a lot of money.

The past  morning, all the gold medalists happily trooped to the Conrad Hotel in their dark blue Philippine team shirts and jackets and received cash and an ovation from the Philippine Olympic Committee. On Wednesday, they put on their Sunday best to get their incentives from the Chief Executive, who generously added to the amounts prescribed by the Incentives Act. All the medalists were conferred the Order of Lapu Lapu in honor of the country’s first hero. Duterte created the honor in April of 2017 to recognize the gallantry of government workers and civilians. It is very rare that such honorifics are given out to such large numbers of people. And the athletes truly deserve it. They are heroes, and the inspiration we derive from them cannot be measured. The next generation of Filipino champions was born watching the 30th SEA Games. 

So now, our athletes can kick back, wallets heavy, bellies full, enjoying the fruits of their honest labor, as they should. Come the New Year, they go back to their version of grunt work, minus the publicity. All those involved in the SEA Games are getting their due (even as some are trying to claim credit that isn’t theirs). 

What was the difference in the SEA Games? Preparation, support, hard work, patience, doing the right thing, getting the right people for the job. There are no substitutes, no shortcuts. Let’s permanently learn that this is the price not of success, but excellence. Let’s remember this, not just at the next SEA Games which will not benefit from the Filipino spirit, but let us remember it always and in all that we do. Let this SEA Games be a turning point, a point of no looking back. The athletes have shown us how to better ourselves. Their example must not go to waste.

Christmas Day will also mean something else. It will mean that there will be 15 days before the Commission on Audit (COA) takes a deep dive into PHISGOC’s books. Like the Marianas Trench, who knows what mysteries will be found? To begin with, government procurement policies were allegedly not followed in acquiring equipment and services. Secondly, certain items were allegedly overpriced or unexplained, such as the P6 million for wrist tags included in the budget for the P55.9 million cauldron. The President threw his unrestrained support behind the SEA Games, but not necessarily the people behind it. Apparently, the PSC will now be handling the ASEAN Para Games which traditionally follow the SEA Games. Think about that.

Christmas is a time for family, reflection and renewal. For the athletes, it is the time to enjoy their glory, in the appreciation of their countrymen, worth more than gleaming gold, silver or bronze. And for those who used this opportunity to take what is not theirs, it is the countdown to comeuppance.

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