Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 24 August 2016


In the recently concluded 2016 Olympics at Rio de Janeiro, we won a solitary silver medal. The last time we won a medal was in the 1996 Atlanta games, also a silver.

Only 10 medals since 1924. Since we first participated in the modern Olympic games as a country, we have won only 10 medals: zero gold, three silvers, seven bronzes.

Just for perspective, the country with the most wins in medals – the outstanding performer across the years – is the United States. Participating in 27 Summer Olympics since the start until the recently finished Rio games, the US has earned 1,022 golds, 794 silvers, and 704 bronzes, a total of 2,520 medals. (I exclude the medals won from the smaller winter games).

The total US haul represents 16 percent of the 15,689 total medals distributed in the games.

Philippine Olympic performance indeed represents a poor and unimpressive record. It will be instructive, and also for the record, to look at this performance, for indeed, it might give clues as to how we have managed our affairs in other aspects of development.

In fact, the record begs the question whether it mirrors some of the problems we have faced as a nation challenged by development issues.

Hidilyn’s triumph, a blessing. In Rio, Hidilyn Diaz won the silver medal for the women’s 53 kg. weightlifting event. Her win was the first by a Filipino woman in our history and a milestone from that viewpoint.

This victory ended a long medal drought through five summer Olympics (Sidney 2000; Athens 2004; Beijing 2008; and London 2012).  During this period, a total of 62 athletes went to the Olympics, winning nothing for the country.

The first five wins, all bronze medals, were earned during a time when the country was an American colony, and so the Philippine athletic delegation was almost an adjunct of the US Olympic team.

The first medal triumph was in swimming (men’s 200 m. breaststroke), won in 1928 (Amsterdam games) and then repeated in 1932 (Los Angeles games), by the same athlete, Teofilo Ildefonso.

Two other bronze medals were won: one in athletics, in 1932 Los Angeles. Simeon Teodoro won the men’s high jump; the other bronze was in boxing (men’s bantam weight, Jose Villanueva). In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Miguel White won the men’s 400 m. bronze in athletic hurdles.

The prewar years were more successful in that the medals earned involved the participation of only a few participating athletes. In 1928, there was one bronze medal from a group of four athletes sent to the games. In 1932, three medals were won from eight athletic participants.

In 1936, a bronze medal was won in the men’s 400 m. hurdles. This was the year when a basketball team was included in the Olympics, so the number of participating athletes rose to 28. The success rate per athlete had fallen.

Since independence in 1946, our Olympic participation produced only five medals won, the most recent win being the silver in the Rio Olympic. A characteristic common to the post-independence participation in the Olympics is that this meagre harvest in medals was achieved at much higher participation of athletes.

Let me add this recording of athletic participation does not include the amount of coaches and officials sent to the games. These are not in the record-keeping.

With more athletes participating in the games, the cost of winning medals is rising fast. I am simply measuring the medal wins in terms of athletes sent! The medal winnings have not produced sufficient compensating rewards in view of the long medal droughts.

After independence, it took almost 30 years before the country won any medal. And later, shortly after winning the last boxing medal in 1996, it took another 20 years before we won a new medal.

In the eight Olympic games between London 1948 to Montreal Olympics 1976, the country sent a total of 291 athletes (or an average of 31 athletes per olympiad) without producing any medal win.

Another feature of this period is that the country’s victories were only realized in boxing events (until Hidilyn Diaz’s success in women’s weightlifting). The country’s meagre success has fallen only into one narrow sport event, boxing.

In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Anthony Villanueva won silver in the featherweight event. Two bronze medals in boxing were gained each in the 1988 Seoul games (men’s flyweight, Leopoldo Serantes) and in the 1992 Barcelona games (Roel Velasco, men’s lightweight)

In the 1996 Atlanta games, Mansuetto Velasco won the men’s light flyweight silver.

Can we improve our performance? Many factors explain why other countries succeed and others fail or are simply mediocre in sports competition.

Apathy or neglect might explain part of this poor sports performance. In general, there is apparent weak leadership in the field of sports development in this country. Lack of mobilization of leadership to produce the needed resources for the specific sports in which Filipinos can excel is wanting in good measure.

Without getting into great details, there are signs why this poor performance keeps on repeating itself.

Through the years, I cannot understand how we have allowed our premier sports institutions to suffer decay and lack of improvement. For instance, the Rizal Memorial stadium area, where most of the nation’s sports organizations used to be housed, today looks decrepit, crowded, and suffocating for space.

In other urban communities, public spaces for sporting events are not easily found, and if found, they are not sufficiently well cared for.

Our mediocrity in Olympic performance mirrors some of the problems that bedevils aspects of Philippine overall performance in development. Our sports institutions have failed to get built from their foundations and get them further strengthened.

Is there a lack of coordination of the institutional base of the sporting life – the educational system, the sports institutions – into a sound sports development program?

Such a program should support the development of sports that fit the athletic capabilities and temperament of Filipino physique. Some of that is related to genetic built and an understanding of the “comparative advantage” that should be fully exploited.

We do not have to think of the luck of the genetic draw in nurturing a Usain Bolt in our midst. That will not happen. But we are capable of producing much better than what we have accomplished so far.