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We must start now

THE Philippine campaign in the Rio Olympics comes to an end today when the last of the 13 Philippine athletes competes in the taekwondo competition. We have one silver medal to our credit, won by Hidilyn Diaz of Zamboanga City in the 53-kg category of women’s weightlifting, ending 20 years of Philippine Olympic medal drought.

But the gold medal continues to elude us. We have never won one in all the Olympic Games we have joined since our first one in Paris in 1924, whereas many smaller nations have done so, the latest being our neighbor Singapore whose swimmer Joseph Schooling won the 100-meter butterfly event, beating America’s top Olympic star Michael Phelps no less.

As in the past, the country’s athletic program has come under criticism from various quarters. Rep. Jericho Nograles of the partylist Pwersa ng Bayaning Atleta scathingly remarked that the Philippines should stop sending “excursionists” to international sporting events, referring to so many sports officials accompanying ill-prepared athletes to competitions abroad, at the expense of taxpayers.

He repeated the oft-expressed criticism that we continue to seek to develop athletes in such popular sports as basketball, where we are at a great disadvantage because many other nations have much taller players. We should focus more on endurance and weight-classed sports, he said, such as boxing and weightlifting, and on marathons. Filipinos can also do well in archery, shooting, synchronized swimming, diving, and other sports that give no advantage to tall and big players, he said.

Earlier this week, new Senator Manny Pacquiao, who now heads the Senate Committee on Sports, presided over a public hearing attended by officials of the Philippine Olympic Committee, the Philippine Sports Commission, and other sports governing bodies. He trained his guns on alleged corruption in various sports bodies.

He recalled that early in his boxing career, long before he won international renown, he had applied to be a member of the Philippine boxing team going to an international competition but was turned down. He said he had heard stories of corruption in the sports bodies and this is the focus of the Senate hearings he is now leading.

Whether it is due to corruption or to an insistence on concentrating on popular sports like basketball to the neglect of other sports more appropriate to the physique and natural talents of Filipinos, we are in a position to do something about it, with the new spirit of change now sweeping the country. Pacquiao warned the sports officials at the Senate hearing that corruption appeared to be “one of the hindrances to our programs that should produce great athletes.”

Many of the athletes we sent to Rio were individuals who trained on their own and then applied for inclusion in the Philippine team. A Fil-American competed in hurdles and a Fil-Japanese competed in judo. Hidilyn Diaz was fortunate to have the Philippine Air Force behind her.

All over the country today, there are thousands of young athletes competing for their schools in regional, then national competitions. There must be a program on the national level to further train and develop these athletes with the proper equipment, the proper coaches, and the proper program year-round.

If we start now, we will surely do better in the next Olympics in Tokyo in 2020. We just might finally win a gold medal.