Monday, August 25, 2008

Postcripts to the Olympics

This is my column today.

The greatest show on earth, the Olympics, officially drew to a rousing close last night at Beijing. And what a show it was indeed! I am not just talking about the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies that China rolled out but of the incredible heights that the human spirit conquered. American swimmer Michael Phelps’ (who, by the way, was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder when he was younger) and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s amazing feats will be achievements that the world will talk about for decades.

At the no other point has the slogan of the Olympics - faster, higher, stronger—been illustrated so poetically and dramatically. And ironically and tragically, at no other point have our shortcomings been painfully brought to the fore. We are a people that think so highly of ourselves, referring to ourselves as world class in many fields. And yet Team Philippines is coming home without even a single medal.

For sure, our debacle in this year’s Olympics will be the subject of intense scrutiny in the coming days. We’ll be seeing a lot of screaming and finger pointing as our leaders try to make sense of our dismal performance in Beijing. Some people have already started floating ideas such as “going back to the drawing board” and “starting all over again,” including massive overhaul of our sports development programs. For once, someone has stepped forward to claim responsibility for the debacle. In a number of interviews, Butch Ramirez, chair of the Philippine Sports Commission has offered himself as the person to blame for our utter failure to live up to the expectations. One can only wish that others, particularly the heads of the various national sports associations, would be as candid.

Instead of taking responsibility, others chose to heap the blame somewhere else. For example, I was aghast to read about how certain people chose to attribute the heartbreaking loss of taekwondo jin Tshomlee Go to Australian Ryan Carneli to biased officiating. Go—as did the rest of the Philippine athletes—did their best, but as the song goes, their best simply wasn’t good enough.

Athletes take the center stage in sports competitions but there’s a lot more that goes into each fight other than the athlete’s talent, courage, and determination. The fact that the athletes wear the national colors into the arena demonstrate just how each one of us is a part of each fight. Unfortunately—and this is something that seems lost in the din and dynamics of the quest for glory—most of us simply want to partake of the triumph. We only pay attention to our athletes during competitions and whenever they win. The rest of the time, we pay no heed to their struggles, particularly the dismal conditions that they are forced to contend with while they train and prepare themselves for athletic competitions.

Our poor performance in this year’s Olympics is particularly painful because the expectations were a little high, which, if we come to think about it, must have been a factor that caused the underperformance of our athletes. There was just too much weight on their shoulders. The high expectations showed the extent of our collective hunger for an Olympic medal that even if we knew deep in our hearts that the chances were rather slim, we still prayed and wished for a miracle.

Now we know it is unrealistic to expect our athletes to produce miracles in international sports contests given the utter lack of a comprehensive, sustainable, and strategic sports development program in our country.

It is time to recognize that sports competitions cannot be won on the basis of raw talent, sheer courage and determination, and dumb luck alone. There is absolutely no doubt that we have an abundance of raw talents in this country, be it in sports, music, and other fields. It can’t be said either that we are shot in the area of grit and gumption. God knows there are more than enough young people in this country who dream of becoming the next Manny Pacquiao, or at least getting a shot at the opportunity to convert whatever little talent or skill they have into a fortune; or at the very least, a ticket out of poverty.

The matter of luck, though, is an entirely different thing. It seems we have not been lucky in national pursuits lately. But then again, luck has always been a tricky thing.

So this is what we must come to terms with: We can’t win in international athletic competitions unless we prepare long and hard for them. Dangling multi-million rewards are good extrinsic motivators for our athletes to push themselves beyond their limits but there is still no substitute for preparation. This means planting seeds and painstakingly nurturing them with all the resources we can. This means identifying athletes that show promise at an early age and nurturing their potentials through many years.

So instead of looking for someone to blame for our failures, instead of cursing our bad luck and ascribing all kinds of doubts over the motivations of out athletes such as in the case of boxer Harry TaƱamor, it might be a better idea for us to focus our energies in more strategic preoccupations such as preparing for the long haul. We can set our sights eight, probably 12 years from now because it will take that long to produce Olympics-caliber athletes.

There are many things that need to be put in place if we are serious about attaining this goal. But I guess the most important is changing our paradigms about the way we look at kinesthetic intelligence. Unfortunately, we really don’t have much respect for athletes until they have become commercial successes. But even when they do become celebrities, we don’t really think of their specific field as an expertise that involves some kind of intelligence. To be blunt about it, we look at athletes as lacking in intelligence, period.

Until we are able to imbibe this paradigm and begin respecting athletes and what they do, we will never be able to empower our kids who show promise in sports because they would always think of themselves as dumb people. They will always be hampered by this attitude that says excelling in sports is an “alternative” rather than as a legitimate and valid career.

We are already seeing partnership between government and the private sector in some sports which is why some sports organizations are headed by businesspeople that provide the necessary guidance and resources. But we’re still not seeing a massive outpouring of support from the business sector in this effort.

At least most academic institutions still offer scholarships and stipends to their athletes. But not all universities can afford to provide the necessary support to student athletes. Many student athletes live under utterly miserable conditions.

Our dismal performance at this year’s Olympics is clearly a wake-up call. We can only hope that we all learn from the sad experience and come out of it with more resolve to finally do what is necessary.

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