A heart for our athletes
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - January 11, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — An athlete’s life is often thankless. You toil and exert all your effort day in and day out until you fall asleep sweaty and spent. You ache in places no one else aches, and hurt at levels nobody else hurts. And you can’t keep explaining to your family why you’re running around practically in your underwear, while everyone else has a “normal” job; and why is it that you hardly seem to be earning anything for all your toil. The word “passion” doesn’t seem to buy you much good will at home. And what will the future bring? What if you get injured or – heaven forbid – cut from the team?

And once you can no longer perform at the same level, what do you do? The lucky few become coaches or trainers. Many go back to the provinces, into the shadows, and try to eke out a living. But it is always hard, even in rural areas where expenses are low.

In the past, some of our most known athletes have had their battles for their benefits. One of our bowlers went to war with the Philippine Sports Commission many years ago when her monthly allowance was downgraded as a result of inactivity. What they didn’t say was that she was inactive because she was injured competing for the Philippine team. Keeping her allowance intact was the least that they could do. It’s very easy to see how athletes can feel used. 

Today, the total opposite is taking place. The PSC is now finding ways to help the athletes of old, well beyond their years of service. They are also navigating their way around unintended loopholes in laws, loopholes that prevent deserving athletes from getting their due pensions and benefits. That is the hard part.

The original incentives law, passed about 18 years ago, had unanticipated problems. Apparently, there was a prescribed period of one year wherein athletes or their next of kin had to apply. But who even knew of the ratification of the law in the first place? Thus, even if it is one of those rare laws that is retroactive, many of our athletes from the past century have not benefited at all. And besides, there are no rules on how next of kin can apply. Neither is there any explanation how next of kin of deceased team athletes can get any benefits. The laws themselves exclude athletes in major world championships that are held annually, another loophole the PSC is trying to work around. Only an act of Congress can change existing laws.

Luckily, the Philippine Sports Commission board is figuring out how to find a lasting relief for national athletes who have retired. Silently, the PSC has been helping the likes of Olympic medalist Leopoldo Serantes. Serantes won a bronze medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and has been ill for many months now, often posting his heartbreaking pleas for help on social media. 

“They deserve better,” says PSC chair Butch Ramirez. “It does not sit well with us that these, our soldiers, suffer like this just because they can no longer compete. We in the PSC have to find a way to help them.”

The commission is also thinking of creating projects for our older retired athletes. The 1972 basketball Olympians, for example, may be given regular basketball clinics in partnership with local governments. They can still demonstrate the basics, and help connect the youth with our rich history of success in sports. 

“There is a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience there,” Ramirez added. “We have to learn from them while they are still here. Once they are gone, all that wisdom will vanish.”

This is another area where the private sector can help. The national sports associations have no protocol or policy for this. For the most part, once an athlete retires, he or she is forgotten. And far too many of our heroes have died in poverty and anonymity. Far too many.

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