Halftime Thoughts: Why do we tolerate financial setbacks as a rite of passage for Filipino athletes?

There is no denying that Filipinos wear resiliency as an epic badge of honor. Even some of our country’s most well-renowned athletes carry their crest on weighed-down shoulders.

There is no denying that Filipinos wear resiliency as an epic badge of honor. Even some of our country’s most well-renowned athletes, such as Manny Pacquiao and Hidilyn Diaz, carry their crest on weighed-down shoulders as they bring glory to the country. Both had gone through the same prevailing trials that the rest of our national athletes grappled with: the unavoidable financial setbacks. 

Inarguably, Filipinos have seen so much of our athletes’ plight to the point that it has become a rite of passage one must endure to represent the flag. It proves their resiliency; overcoming odds and hardships before they are showered with victories. However, as this issue remains a cause of dispute every time they raise our flag, it is about time to reassess how we, as Filipinos, view the tribulations our national athletes face in the pursuit of gold. 

Rising feuds between athletes and the government

“I wanted to quit.” These were the exact words EJ Obiena shared with Esquire last November 2022 in a feature where he opened up about his difficulties as an elite professional athlete. He emphasized how much harder it was to represent the Philippines in the athletic scene compared to other nations. 

The grounds behind his statement were much in part due to the fallout he experienced with the Philippines Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA) in January 2022 while recovering from knee surgery during the same month.   

PATAFA publicly accused Obiena of embezzling funds and fabricating liquidation reports, demanding that the athlete return the amount that was given to him. Because of this, PATAFA declined to endorse Obiena in the four major tournaments he had lined up. Obiena denied the allegations and even presented how he had to shoulder the bank transfer fees to pay his dues. The issue was only resolved in March of the same year when the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) announced that they had settled the dispute through mediation. By then, Obiena was able to greatly bounce back thanks to the independent efforts from him and his team. Despite the controversy-filled year, Obiena brought home 17 medals across several international competitions—12 of which were gold.

Gold is not equivalent to gold

Another unforgettable public outcry by a Filipino athlete was weightlifter Diaz’s Instagram story before her 2020 Tokyo Olympics bid. The post read, “Hirap na hirap ako. I need financial support.” Diaz also had to ask with humility for private companies to back her up. This series of posts led to a consultation with PSC that granted Diaz P4.5 million for her training abroad.

(I’m really having a hard time.) 

Fast forward to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Diaz lifted the country to glory, becoming the nation’s first-ever Olympic gold medalist. However, bringing home a gold medal doesn’t equate to an overnight fortune despite its monetary reward—the medal is not pawnable after all. During a media roundtable hosted by Under Armour in October 2022, Diaz revealed that her budget at the time was not enough to send her to her future bids like the 2024 Olympics, which would mark her fifth and last appearance in the competition.

The bare minimum

In a briefing after Diaz’s golden win, then-Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque himself admitted that the government does not adequately support its national athletes. He even stated that one could compare Filipino athletes’ allowance to the minimum wage. This acknowledgment by Roque backs up the tragic testimony of Eumir Marcial, a Filipino boxer and olympian.

In a Facebook post, Marcial disclosed that his monthly allowance of P43,000 from the government was not enough to cover his training expenses for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, especially since he was training in the United States. Marcial protested, “Tanong ko din sa inyo: mahihina ba kaming mga Pilipinong atleta [kaya] hanggang ngayon walang nakakakuha ng gold sa Olympics o sadyang may problema na ang pag supporta galing sa inyo?!” 

(Now, my question is, have we never had an Olympic gold really because Filipino athletes are weak, or do we simply lack support from you?) 

The PSC quickly retorted that Marcial’s financial state was due to the Alliance of Boxing Association of the Philippines failure to endorse him—showing no remorse even after Marcial trained with the burden of recently losing his brother and father in Zamboanga. Butch Ramirez, then-chairman of PSC, even said that struggles like this build character among athletes, which he considers a better result than any medal or distinction. 

In the end, Marcial stated that he no longer wanted to listen to what the PSC had to say: “I want to just focus on my Olympic training. They are just distractions to me.” Come the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Marcial snatched the bronze medal. 

If PSC provided him with more than the menial amount he received, would his bronze medal have been a gold instead? 

The ruling for romanticization 

Obiena, Diaz, and Marcial’s stories are only some of the many displays of the government’s shortcomings in financially supporting athletes. What is worse is we Filipinos expect our athletes to be powerful gladiators who must go through such hurdles before making our nation proud. As they say, “no guts, no glory.” However, it is time that we stop romanticizing our athlete’s resiliency to highlight their well-earned success.

For one, the government’s deficiencies and our inattention can push esteemed athletes like Wesley So, a Filipino chess grandmaster, out of our country’s pride. “Not only did the country refuse to acknowledge my efforts, [but] they [also] refused to give me the P1 million promised to athletes who bring home a gold medal,” So tragically stated as he explained his decision to play for the US federation instead. 

Moreover, countries like the USA have their United States Olympic Committee, which generates revenue through television broadcast rights. Their earnings go to certain practices that help support their national athletes. Due to that, their contenders remain well-motivated, leading to continuous improvement. Well-known athletes have also been more favored for endorsements and sponsorships, leaving little support for underground athletes. On the other hand, the Philippines’ governing body for sports only relies on the Department of Budget and Management for funds, which still need to be proposed and approved. 

That said, our athletes need more than our adoration and appreciation. The PSC has to find avenues that can finance our athlete’s bids. However, since building a financial system that justly supports our athletes will take time, our government could at least work on being accountable and honest about its limitations in the present time to prevent controversies from emerging and affecting the hopes of our own.

Angel Migue

By Angel Migue

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