To the ancient Athenians, sports were an integral element of personal development. Competitive physical exertions, which pushed the limits of human strength and dexterity, were as important as philosophy to the constitution of a good life.
For Aristotle, one of the finest Greek thinkers, who moved to Athens from the peripheries of the Greek world, the ultimate purpose of a political community (polity) was to provide the proper conditions for full human flourishing. Active citizens were the lively molecules collectively constituting the body politic. One should embody mental as well as physical excellence, spending his (citizens were exclusively male) time between philosophical schools of thought, where the most profound questions of existence were debated, and gymnasiums. In ancient Athens, Alcibiades, an aristocratic general of great attractiveness who assiduously pursued Socrates, represented the ideal man, though as a citizen he would turn notorious for treachery.
To Romans, meanwhile, sports served as crucial glue that held the empire together. The often brutal multiracial gladiatorial battles, held amid much fanfare in enormous coliseums, highlighted not only the Roman Empire’s architectural grandeur, but also defined its political life. The bloodstained struggles of Herculean gladiators, drawn from all corners of the empire, represented Rome’s warrior-spirit as well as the breadth of its imperial ambitions. In coliseums, the Roman citizens also witnessed the life-and-death powers of the Emperor, who had the final say on the fate of even the most beloved gladiators.
As historian Edward Hallett Carr explains, the modern era saw the transformation of sports into an integral element in fostering nationalism, where a sense of collective dignity and achievement is tethered to the triumph of national athletes. The Olympics and the Fifa World Cup have become the epitome of interstate struggle for dominance through physical yet peaceful means.
As in military prowess during war, sports serve as a bellwether of national discipline, organizational strength and collective excellence during times of peace. And this is precisely why the current state of Philippine sports is a symptom of a much more fundamental crisis.
As we enter a new decade in the 21st century, the Philippines continues to bear the rare distinction of belonging to a thinning club of mostly small, struggling nations that are yet to win a single Olympic gold medal. To put things into perspective, a nation of more than 100 million souls is yet to produce a single athlete who has triumphed above all the rest in at least one category of Olympic sports. And despite being the second largest nation in terms of population in Southeast Asia, the Philippines has often been relegated to the middling ranks in recent regional SEA (Southeast Asian) Games.
To be fair, this year we will likely be among the top performers, which is far from surprising, since SEA Games host-nations, for a combination of reasons, tend to perform abnormally well in the medal rankings.
Our sports crisis, however, was desperately highlighted by the brazenly inept preparations for the Games. Sports officials from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand were among those who joined the outcry against what the international media has described as the “total mess”and embarrassing “chaos” that greeted exhausted athletes arriving in the Philippines for the 2019 SEA Games.
To be fair, there have been notable achievements, too, above all the spanking-new sports complex at New Clark City. And surely, hosting any major sports event is no walk in the park.
But placing traditional politicians (trapos) with zero relevant experience in charge of a multibillion-peso international sports project yielded a depressingly predictable outcome, beyond just the controversial million-dollar “cauldron.” Even President Duterte was prompted to call for an investigation into the mess. Particularly pathetic and deplorable was the attempt to silence, smear and dismiss legitimate criticisms.
Back in 1954, we proudly and efficiently hosted the prestigious Asian Games in the Philippines. We ended up second in the entire Asia, just behind Japan. Today, while struggling to even make a mark among Southeast Asian states, we are left with politicians who want us to “eat [our] own words” by simply confining our expectations to the pageantry of the opening ceremonies.
Like the darkest days of ancient Rome, some politicians perhaps just want us to be dazed into passive silence by the spectacle of sheer entertainment amid widespread political decay.
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