“As you take part in your chosen sport, remember you are already champions,” President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said in his speech at the formal opening of the Palarong Pambansa. After a four-year hiatus, the national games returned this year from July 29 to August 5 in Marikina City with the theme “Batang Malakas, Bansang Matatag.”
In the multisport event, student-athletes from kindergarten to grade 12 competed in 34 disciplines, representing the 17 regions of the Philippines.
Palarong Pambansa, since its inception in 1948, has spearheaded the Department of Education’s (DepEd) objective of promoting sports and health among the youth. The event gathered 9,172 talented student-athletes in the country this year, as even qualifying to participate means succeeding in regional and divisional meets.
For many aspiring young talents, Palarong Pambansa is an opportunity to showcase their training and establish themselves as future national athletes. Renowned stars from different sports such as Lydia de Vega and Danny Ildefonso planted their roots in the national games.
“I am certain that many of our participants here, one day, we will be watching in international competitions as we have become a force in terms of international sports,” Marcos said.
But what is blurred in those moments of national pride is an exploited sports sector left underfunded by the same government that praises it. Concealed in Philippine sports is the conversion of hard-fought glory earned by unsupported national athletes into political capital by the state.
An Uphill Battle
Philippine athletes compete against each other not only in their respective sports but also for the scraps of resources that the government frugally places for their sector.
Butch Ramirez, the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) chairman, said the government investments in sports bore fruit in the country’s successes in competitions overseas. He claims that over P2.4 billion of the agency’s funding was poured into national sports during his term from 2016 to 2019. Yet, these billions of funds were absent when multiple athletes stepped forward to expose the government’s inadequate support.
Boxing qualifier Irish Magno revealed that the PSC was two months late in giving allowances to the national boxing team during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which made her unable to send money back to her family.
These woes reverberate in all levels of sports including student-athletes in the Palarong Pambansa. Madel Santiago, mother of 17-year-old athletics gold medalist Krisleen, said they have yet to receive incentives and allowances for the national games and the Cavite regional meets held in April. “Wala pa nga pong ibinibigay hanggang ngayon pati po yung nakaraan nila,” she said.
An athlete’s frustration from insufficient support is exacerbated by the bureaucracy and internal corruption that plague the sports commission.
The proposed budget for the PSC next year fell to P210.44 million, reflecting a considerable cut from its approved budget of P5.216 billion in 2023. PSC had to lobby for increased funding in 2023 after they were initially handed a mere P218.18 million budget for sports training and infrastructure.
On top of the measly budget, the sports commission has been embroiled in corruption in the past. In 2020, PSC employees allegedly redirected the payroll and allowances of athletes into their bank accounts, embezzling a total of P14 million over five years.
Sports players cannot rely on the government when it diverts so much of their critical funding away from their needs and training. A symptom of this sports depreciation is the lack of suitable infrastructure.
James Cack, father and coach of 17-year-old regional badminton player Liam, says that they have to travel outside their hometown of Zambales to Manila to train because of the lack of standardized badminton courts in the province. “Ang bayad doon is P1,000 per session. So P1,000 for 12 days, P12,000 na yon sa isang coach pa lang,” James said.
During Liam’s training for the regional meet in Central Luzon, they had to shoulder P40,000 worth of expenses. The hefty costs immensely affected their preparation since they had to save or borrow money before starting training, James said.
Similarly, Madel’s daughter has to travel from her dormitory to a farther running track since her school’s oval is unmaintained. The delayed allowances only caused more struggles for their family. “Minsan po yung coach niya ang nagbibigay (ng pera) pero di po nasapat ... Minsan po nauwi siya para humingi lang sa ‘kin ng pera,” Madel said.
Political Game Theory
The frugal support given to the sports sector can be pinned on the opportunism of politicians harnessing the glory of victorious athletes to fuel their agenda without shelling out sufficient resources. When national athletes compete, it can translate into heightened nationalism that invokes a sense of unity among citizens.
In 2002, a failed military coup in the Ivory Coast degenerated into a fierce civil war between the north and south. But when their football team qualified for the 2006 World Cup, hostilities were halted to see their country succeed within the international arena.
It is this strong force of national sentiment that politicians capture and redirect for their political capital, according to an economic study on sports funding. Yet despite the benefits of a successful sports campaign, funding the sector is seen as risky because there is no assurance of profit.
This is why the government is quick to claim glory but slow to reimburse training expenses. As the chance of winning the event decreases, the investment required to win begins to outweigh the potential political return.
While politicians recognize the gains from sports successes, they are also influenced by its failures.
In the cases of Canada and Australia, poor performances in the 1976 Olympics led to increased funding for their sports commissions. The undersupply of success and subsequent public outcry forced the government to intervene.
Since Philippine athletes can succeed despite the government’s failure to support them, the state does not see a need to increase their funding, and instead, sees a way to claim their victories without much cost.
Glia Pahulayan, the 15-year-old Palarong Pambansa wrestling gold medalist, said that their city rarely provides sporting equipment for them, and only caters to athletes who qualify for prominent events.
In this depressing scheme, an athlete who wins despite the odds will be rewarded, while athletes who are not podium finishers will be stuck in a cycle of self-dependence, hindering their capability to ask for support and improve.
In 2019, weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz relied on donations from social media to finance her bid for the Olympics. It was only after winning gold that she received significant support from the state.
Former President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration seized the opportunity to attribute the Tokyo Olympics victories as fruits of the government’s investment. Instead of directing national sentiments toward support for the sports sector, the achievements are framed as a politician’s contribution to the country.
Setting the Goal
The hopeless state of sports funding spells a bleak future for student-athletes. For James and Madel, securing their needs can only be achieved once the government invests in ensuring proper infrastructure and timely allowances that will allow athletes to focus solely on their training instead of worrying about funding.
Establishing such a change begins in schools which should provide an environment conducive to athletic development. DepEd aims for the continuous integration of sports in student growth yet neglects sports infrastructure within educational institutions.
James said that having available facilities within their public school would greatly lessen their hardships in training his son. James himself played in the Palarong Pambansa for Ilocos Norte and experienced the same struggles then. Student-athletes will inevitably follow the same future struggles if sports continue to be neglected.
“Masasabi mo pa rin na persisent pa ang problem na ‘yon na di makapag-prepare because of lack of facilities, because of lack of funds,” he said.
Madel believes athletes deserve rightful support for their hardships regardless if they bring home medals. Allowances and incentives enable them to continue representing their region or school and fuel their passion for sports.
“Hindi po biro ang training ng mga bata. Pagod at sakit ng katawan ang puhunan nila para lang manalo at makakuha ng gintong medalya,” Madel said.
In the national games, Marcos Jr. reiterated his administration’s commitment to improving athletic development. But these assurances of support are illusory if contextualized within the continued exploitation of national athletes.
Young competitors in the Palarong Pambansa are lauded as future representatives of the country, but unless there is consistent support for the sports sector, all athletes will either be neglected or exploited as champions of the government’s political agenda. ●
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