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The Weight of Gold

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Our resident sports fan makes a toast to the journeys of Hidilyn Diaz, Margielyn Didal, and Nesthy Petecio—and a plea for supporting Filipino athletes year-round.

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July 26, 2021 will be a day that Filipinos—and not just the sports fans—will remember forever. During the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz handed the Philippines its first Olympic gold medal, setting two Olympic records and tying a world record in the process.

In the hours that followed, social media was a frenzy of joy, tears, and key smashing as Filipinos from around the world celebrated the hard-fought victory of one of our own.

After the year and a half that we’ve had, any good news is welcome, but I’d say this win felt particularly emotional: In the lead-up to her Olympic run, Hidilyn was outspoken about the difficulty of her training situation. She endured harassment for being critical of it, and it kept her in local headlines regularly. Coupled with the stigma of being a woman in what many consider a masculine sport, and the heartbreak of falling just short of gold at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, her golden moment felt like an act of poetic justice; a reward for everything she’s endured.

Amid the celebrations, pieces of the bigger story surfaced: her Instagram Stories asking for private sponsors; quotes and articles that revealed her struggle to secure funding for competitions. That night, Hidilyn Diaz was not only a shining example of the heights Filipino athletes could achieve, but also an important reminder of the struggles they face just to get the chance.

I was raised a sports fan all my life; I spent my childhood cheering on my dad’s alma mater during UAAP basketball season, and my teenage years awake at 3AM, streaming one World Cup match while keeping up with three more. I remember years in sports milestones (2008? Ah, the epic five-hour Federer/Nadal Wimbledon final—good times.) and plan my social life around Stanley Cup playoff series. My love of sports eventually led me to love writing about sports, too.

In the last few years, I’ve gotten the chance to help tell the stories of many local athletes, from the rowers who regularly represent the country to the ice hockey players still finding their footing locally. And in every interview and every conversation, I hear the same sentiment: the odds are stacked against you.

That Hidilyn achieved Olympic success with such little support is awe-inspiring, but it’s a feat we can’t reasonably expect to be the norm.

In the midst of cheering for our homegrown heroes on the biggest stage in sports, casual viewers tend to forget that the road to the Olympics doesn’t reset every four years. It can take decades of lessons, training, and competitions to hone Olympic talent, and even then, qualification—especially when you’re up against the very best in your sport—is never guaranteed. For every dozen or so athletes competing at the Olympics, there are thousands around the world who just didn’t make the cut. It’s an arduous journey that necessitates not only the blood, sweat, and tears of every athlete, but also support from the institutions and the public around them.

And we should be supporting them. History has proven that the Philippines has a wealth of sporting talent: In the last five years alone, our athletes have returned 120 SEA Games medals, 21 Asian Games medals, and an Olympic medal (not even counting this year’s)—just in major competitions. Year in and year out, Filipino athletes make the case for being some of the best in the world.

But not all of them have, or will, make it to the world’s stage. From collegiate players to Olympic delegates, inadequate funding and facilities have been a sore spot for local athletes in pretty much any sport. Hidilyn hasn’t been the only one to speak about the lack of funding; Olympic skateboarder Margielyn Didal also called out the lack of support for the country’s skaters after their three-medal haul in the 2019 SEA Games, while her coach lamented how athletes like her are forced to leave the Philippines just to get the training they need.

Across the country, college athletes can spend small fortunes to rent out training facilities, and many league players drive hours on end just to compete. And this isn’t a case of athletes being difficult or demanding too much; even the government admits the aid they’ve given is far from enough, comparing allowances for national athletes to the minimum wage. That Hidilyn achieved Olympic success with such little support is awe-inspiring, but it’s a feat we can’t reasonably expect to be the norm.

As of writing, the pledged prize money for Hidilyn’s gold medal performance, from both the government and private sector, has shot to over Php 40 million. She deserves it—she absolutely does—but where was this generosity when she was asking for a fraction of that amount to help fund her training? If we were as willing to invest in supporting young athletes and grassroots programs as we are in rewarding Olympic-winning performances, I can’t help but wonder if we would’ve produced more Olympic champions by now.

This is the unfortunate reality in many so-called developing nations: funding for sports, along with the arts and sciences, often takes the backseat. As a result, those in the field are asked to make the best of what they’re given, or come up with ways to help themselves. Recently, star figure skater Michael Christian Martinez—a three-time Winter Olympian and the Philippines’ first—set up a fundraising campaign to help as he aims to qualify for Beijing 2022.

These circumstances inevitably drive our country’s brightest talents elsewhere in search of better opportunities—whether it’s a seasoned coach to train them, or a college scholarship that lets them compete and study. In the most extreme cases, like that of chess grandmaster Wesley So, they give up on representing the Philippines altogether. And I can’t blame them.

To say we don’t care about sports is a lie—this is a country that stops traffic for boxing matches, and holds public viewing parties for college basketball games—but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some degree of neglect. Financial support is vital to the development of our national athletes; so is a strong sense of moral support from the community. And it’s here that all of us need to acknowledge that we haven’t always done our part, either.

In the Philippines, the widespread public adoration for sports often starts and ends with the ones we consider mainstream. There’s a reason only basketball, volleyball, and cheerdance get prime TV schedules during UAAP season: Collectively, we only support a handful of popular sports, and in many cases, we care more about the major leagues of other countries than our own.

Financial support is vital to the development of our athletes; so is a strong sense of moral support from the community.

Of course, this isn’t all our fault as audiences; there’s a lot to be said about the lack of access to sports in the Philippines, both as media to watch and as activities to participate in. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve said a silent prayer that the stream I use doesn’t give me malware, or the days I’ve had to make do with frantically refreshing hashtags because every video I could find was geo-blocked. Even local competitions can be hard to get a hold of; fans having to rely on Facebook Lives and spotty internet connections just to keep up.

Because of the lack of access, we end up paying attention to the sports that are already in front of us, only really caring about local athletes in other sports when they win big prizes or qualify for major competitions like the Olympics or the SEA Games. Looking back, how many of us tuned in to watch Carlos Yulo win the World Artistic Gymnastics Championship in 2019, or see Yuka Saso become the first Filipino to win the US Women’s Open last June? More importantly, even if we couldn’t, did we actually want to?

These problems snowball into a destructive cycle: limited access leads to a lack of public interest in the sport, making it less likely for broadcast stations to air future competitions. The lack of exposure can deter sponsors from funding the sport, leading to subpar training for the athletes, which can cause poor results that will keep public interest low.

Now, the onus isn’t on every Filipino to break this cycle by caring about every single sport our athletes participate in. But there’s power in recognizing that there are Filipinos competing in all sorts of sports around the world, and in supporting them even as audiences and individuals.

Year in and year out, Filipino athletes make the case for being some of the best in the world.

I’ve been asked many times why I watch sports so much, and I’ve never had one specific answer. Maybe it’s that I find the matches entertaining, that I like the community it creates, or that I’m just a sucker for an underdog story. But at the end of the day, what keeps me watching is the spirit of every athlete.

Our athletes dedicate their lives to the sports they love while—as they say—the odds are stacked against them. At the heart of all sports is a person who has committed themselves to it; who has overcome countless setbacks, injuries, and systems working against them to be able to pursue what they love. It’s true that sports won’t solve the world’s biggest problems, but they do tell an enduring story of people who push past their limits, strive to be the best versions of themselves, and uplift each other in the process. These stories are well worth tuning into, long after the headlines have stopped talking about them.

Over the last week, the Olympics has filled many Filipinos with a sense of pride: Hidilyn earned the country’s first gold. Nesthy Petecio is assured at least a bronze medal in women’s boxing (and she competes tomorrow!). Across different sports, our athletes compete and bring us all a vicarious sense of accomplishment and joy that I’d say we haven’t felt in a very long time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve replayed videos of their Olympic moments, and the photos still give me chills each time they pass through my feed.

But amid that pride is a fervent hope that this set of athletes won’t be the last to do it.

For many athletes, Olympic gold is the ultimate destination. But for sports in the Philippines, I hope it’s only the beginning; that this win serves as a wake-up call for government and private institutions that there’s worth in supporting our athletes. I hope this becomes the catalyst for the Filipino people to choose to support local athletes year-round, and in between Olympic seasons. It took 97 years for the country to achieve Olympic gold, but with the right support and the right policies in place, we can make sure that it doesn’t take another 97 to earn the next one.

Minutes after her gold medal win, Hidilyn spoke to the media in Tokyo and said she hopes to serve as proof that Filipinos can achieve their dreams. “They said this was impossible. I thought this was impossible,” she said. “But the Filipino can do it; we just have to believe.”

Make no mistake, she and many of our athletes have been brilliant models of the indomitable spirit and perseverance of the Filipino. But with the country truly behind them, supporting and uplifting them in the ways that they need, maybe they can bank on something more than belief.