EDITORIAL: Athletes are more than their weight in gold

On July 26, 2021, the country was juxtaposed between two opposing forces. One, grim and weary, was President Duterte’s final State of the Nation Address. The other was a restorative push that lifted the entire nation: weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz clinching the nation’s first Olympic gold.

Diaz is no stranger to the Duterte administration’s senseless ramblings. In September 2019, she was among those tagged in an ouster plot bared by then Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo in plain cartolina paper during a Palace briefing. For all the troll attacks Diaz received online, Panelo was reserved in apologizing for the accusation, even calling her pain “misplaced.”

Quick to look past the ouster plot, government officials like Duterte joined the many companies swooning over Diaz’s gold medal. Among the rewards given to Diaz were a house and lot unit, lifetime flights and more than P25 million from various business tycoons.

These rewards, however, do not live up to the tremendous sacrifices Diaz endured when she was training for her first Olympic stint in 2008. As much as a gold medal cements Diaz’s hard work, it does not give the government a free pass to overlook the labor that went behind it.

Through hell and back

The journey to the Olympics has always been a bitter one. 

In 2018, photos that Diaz took of her outmoded training gym at the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex went viral. Even after nabbing the silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics, she still attends a gym that “hasn’t changed since 1990.” Diaz added that it was no surprise Filipinos haven’t won gold medals in the Olympics. 

“Is it okay to ask [for] sponsorship sa mga private companies toward Tokyo 2020? Hirap na hirap na ako, I need financial support,” Diaz posted on her Instagram account.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. On May 12, boxer Eumir Marcial aired his frustration on the scarce government support he receives.

Mahihina ba kaming mga Pilipinong atleta kung bakit hanggang ngayon walang nakakakuha ng gold sa Olympics, o sadyang may problema na ang pag-suporta galing sa inyo?” he said.

Marcial, who bagged a bronze medal for the country months later, was not spared from harsh comments on social media, with some even calling him a “diva.”

Investment

Sponsors are not so keen on investing in athletes who are just starting out in their fields. The dilemma is that athletes have to go through hell and back to prove they are worthy of funding.

“As long as they are qualified, we have no problem. Let us not spend our money on athletes with no chances of qualifying,” said Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) ex-chairman Richie Garcia on athletes competing in the Rio 2016 Olympics.

In understanding why athletes are unlikely to win medals at international games, perhaps Garcia needs to review survivorship bias. Funding only those they deem “qualified” overlooks why there are so little who fit into that category.

The genuineness of the government’s perceived benevolence towards athletes like Diaz has yet to be proven. What will determine their sincerity is whether they are willing to improve the lives of those who didn’t make it to the Olympic podium, or those who are yet to join the games.

A 2021 Bulatlat report showed that Duterte’s budget for the PSC has been fluctuating. From only around P200 million in 2017 and 2018, it soared to P5.36 billion in 2019 to cover the country’s hosting expenses for the 30th Southeast Asian Games. 

After the high that year, it was again slashed by 82% in 2020, with the total funding amounting to just around P945 million.

Former Gilas Pilipinas Coach Yeng Guiao also revealed inconsistencies in the PSC’s mandated share from the earnings of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor) and the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO). 

While Pagcor is required to remit 5% of its annual income to the PSC, it has only been giving 2.13% to the sports commission since 1993. PCSO, which is required to submit 30% of its annual proceeds from six sweepstakes or lottery draws, stopped giving to the PSC in 2006.

Although Guiao filed petitions to the Supreme Court, they remain in limbo as of writing.

“Money that really belongs to the athletes but was channeled to another purpose must be given back to the PSC and used for its original purpose, which is for the development of sports and support for our athletes,” said Guiao.

Whether the government wants to change the status quo is a different question. Officials have yet to make a solid move towards improving funding for their training.

Alam ko po talaga kulang. Para ba hong, para nga pong minimum wage nga lang ang nabibigay nating allowance doon sa mga atleta natin. Titingnan po natin kung paano po natin mababago ito,” said Palace spokesman Harry Roque. 

On Aug. 9, Roque took back his words, saying Duterte “really invested” in Filipino athletes, which made possible the country’s historic Olympic finish.

Credit-grabbers like Roque represent how politicians act in the country’s time of triumph. The only thing Duterte’s administration made possible for athletes is a conundrum: Olympians need to grab the gold to get the bare minimum, while politicians do only the bare minimum to grab the most gold.

Their change is coming

Even after a plea for sponsors, years of training, being tagged in an ouster plot and a global pandemic, Diaz is committed to inspiring athletes in the sport. After she brought home the gold medal, many children flocked to her gym in Zamboanga City, lifting smaller weights of their own.

Olympic skater Margielyn Didal designed the training facility she was deprived of in her hometown of Cebu City. She aspires to start a permanent public skatepark to field more interest in skateboarding.

Athletes, who were once promised change by Duterte in 2016, are the ones striving to make change for those who want to stand in their shoes. The president, however, is yet to show any regret over underfunding the athletes, much less change the snobbish system he has emboldened. 

Figure skater Michael Martinez knows this all too well. In his journey to the 2022 Winter Olympics, his team had set up a GoFundMe page as no sponsors have avowed their support. 

“Unfortunately, we are also not in the capacity to fund all of them fully. Figure skating — as with many other sports — is very costly, especially at the elite level,” said Philippine Skating Union President Nikki Cheng.

The price athletes pay to train is no joke. The lack of quality equipment and facilities has led them to seek support elsewhere — even if it means leaving their families and spending money from their own pockets. 

Duterte, who himself knows how much funding can empower a corrupt politician, a national police force, a military or a task force to “end local communist armed conflict”, makes a deliberate decision to deprive Filipinos of the pride they look for in athletes. 

The truest way Duterte can show his thanks to Filipino medalists is to change the system that has enabled years of struggle for support. It is clear that he lied when he promised change for Filipino athletes. He has let too many medals rust in the name of tyranny. 

As long as the culture of tokenism persists and our sports remain unsupported, future Filipino Olympians will remain as stories of perseverance against neglect.

We don’t have time to wait for the next international games, or the next elections to fund our athletes. The next gold medalist could give up on their sport tomorrow.

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