Were we ready to take them on? Perhaps we weren’t. But perhaps in accepting what’s happened, we can holster our online weaponry, get down to the sport, and save investigations for after the event

By Jaymes Shrimski  | Photo by Tristan Tamayo

The 30th edition of the biennial SEA Games will run from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, smearing itself across New Clark City, Subic, Metro Manila, Tagaytay City, La Union, and Batangas. Here then approaches 12 days of profuse nail-biting on my part, with profuse scrolls across whatever social network I can get my hands on to match. We–and I very deliberately use we–are not off to the best start as hosts for the event, having managed to leave foreign athletes to meander on airport benches, sleep on musky conference floors, and pick at substandard food offerings. Oh, but we did manage to build a 50-meter, P50 million cauldron.

Off the bat, I set my sights on two things: a scrambled set of priorities, and the slap we Internet denizens have dealt. So as we traverse a rundown of mishaps and frank mess-ups that have been written in blood across social media, let’s keep these two things close by lest we continue the “kick them while they’re down” antics we’ve come so well to know.

We–and I very deliberately use we–are not off to the best start as hosts for the event, having managed to leave foreign athletes to meander on airport benches, sleep on musky conference floors, and pick at substandard food offerings. Oh, but we did manage to build a 50-meter, P50 million cauldron

You Don’t Host a Party While Your House is Being Built

You’ll end up with sawdust in your champagne flute.

But seriously: With the Philippine government pumping money into infrastructure projects, we get the attractive GDP increase figures in the high fives and occasional six–a hot ticket for foreign investors given lowering interest rates and inflation. This doesn’t mean we should be engaging in expenditures without the judicious process of discerning what is and isn’t of immediate value.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon aptly recognized, “We have a deficit of P624 billion and P10 billion of that will be because of the facilities that we build.” In fact, given the Senate cut the Games’ budget from general appropriations from P7.5 billion to P5 billion, additional funding had to be secured from a Malaysian firm, according to Drilon“payable in five-years’ time at P2.2 billion per year so a total of P11 billion.” 

Swimming at this point in a sea of budget questions and the online outspoken raging fingers at individuals, I return to our two main points and ask: Were we in the right place budget-wise to host the games to begin with?

It’s not like we didn’t have the option to withdraw.

Clearly, there has been a big kafuffle with the priorities the planning committee has set to bring the event to fruition. The reports on bare necessities of athletes not being met make that as evident as a pimple on a teenager. But, this was set upon a house of cards to begin with. We probably weren’t ready to take this whole thing on. Perhaps the country was doing more than enough in its allocation of budget, resources, and time on infrastructure. There you have our first point

You Treat Guests Like Royalty, Don’t You?

There is a scene in the fabulously decorated 2018 comedy/drama “Green Book” where African-American pianist Dr. Don Shirley, on his way to the restroom in a posh Southern home, is “politely” ushered to the outhouse by the house’s proprietor. Ironically, Dr. Shirley with his piano prowess was that evening’s main event.

With the slew of luxurious hotels available around Metro Manila and Clark even, have we done something analogous?

Timor Leste’s soccer team waited almost three hours at the airport (“sigh” seems apt) before they were picked up and shuttled to, per reports, the wrong hotel (“groan”). Myanmar’s team found the shuttle service uncomfortable after yet another wait at the airport, while Thailand’s team squeezed three athletes into two-person rooms. Meanwhile, in a horrible twist of “interrupt your colleague and show them the headline” social media butchering, we learned that the Cambodian team arrived at the hotel only to make do with conference room floors as their sleeping arrangements remained unready.

But even more than transportation, “Singapore chef de mission (the person in charge of a sporting team at an international event) Juliana Seow said Singapore’s delegation at the SEA Games has been dealing with numerous issues ranging from accreditation to insufficient halal food for its athletes,” the Inquirer reports. According to The Straits Times, the team, which has a strict halal requirement, was not given sufficient options. Some players even “had to starve.” The Philippine Women’s football coach Let Dimzon weighed in on the food situation citing the rice, kikiam, and egg served commenting: “Walang nutrients” [“no nutrients”].

At an international event, with a budget built on taxpayers’ money and extended with borrowed funds, the very least one might expect is decent food for the athletes, or (and especially in the case of the Singaporean team) food the athletes can actually eat. We return again to our two points: Given the choice to host the event may have been ill, did we manage to properly discern where budget should have been allocated?

There Are Things You Don’t Have to be a Scout to Know

For starters, you need a proper field to play on.

With the hefty budget, albeit one thrown together while a lot is already going on in the way of money movement in the country, you may expect that stadiums have been built–even haphazardly perhaps with little faith in their lasting. But social media has raced into view with pictures of structures unfinished with bickering commentary to complete the pictures. An Inquirer Sports tweet read “The skate park and cycling track in Tagaytay City Cavite are 93-95 percent complete as of Monday. Contractor targets to finish the construction by Wednesday in time for SEA Games opening” and yet the pictures attached painted a different story. I’m no Tony Hawk, but you don’t skate on grass.

Secondly, if you’re playing soccer, you need some sort of scoreboard. While Malaysia and Myanmar ended in a 1-1 draw in the first soccer match of the Games, the match held at Rizal Memorial Stadium went on sans scoreboard. This, along with the unfinished sports infrastructure is a clear gush of blood from the wound we may have dealt ourselves when we decided to take this whole thing on. Again I ask: Did we set ourselves up for this?

The last thing a scout probably knows: You own up to your wrongdoings. A press team was prevented from taking photos at the previously described football match while the conference of Myanmar and Malaysia was cancelled owing to “venue concerns.” The dugout was dusty and uncarpeted, and that’s all we know.

You Don’t Throw a Party and Starve your Guests

The cauldron cost about a million bucks (in US dollars). Again Franklin Drilon chimes in, “Do you realize that at one million (pesos) per classroom, we can construct 50 classrooms?” The Senate Minority Leader has certainly lent some thought to the situation, hasn’t he? But while classrooms could have been built, volunteers could have at least been fed. 

Reports had it that volunteers have been traveling to venues, training, and even eating out of their own pockets. Instruction texts arrived on short notice leading to fall out while rumors of division into “high-tiers” and “low-tiers” circulated alleging that free meals and allowances were going to the former. A big ball of confusion is what we ended up with.

We effectively wound up with an expensive metal pole, fewer volunteers than initially expected, and a large number of volunteers once motivated now disgruntled. Who knows how the annoyed half will treat the athletes and their fans? You don’t starve your guests.

Watching folks I know unfold online into captions of depravity puts a frown on my face. Sharing information is one thing, but “weaponizing” it to talk our whole nation down is another

I’m Dizzy

Not because I’m annoyed at the individuals that made the decisions to get us where we are in this SEA Games sour step forward, but because we parade social media with middle fingers as high as we can raise them and “never been more ashamed” banners stuck above our heads with whatever hands are available.

Clearly, there has been a big kafuffle with the priorities the planning committee has set to bring the event to fruition. The reports on bare necessities of athletes not being met make that as evident as a pimple on a teenager. But, this was set upon a house of cards to begin with. We probably weren’t ready to take this whole thing on. Perhaps the country was doing more than enough in its allocation of budget, resources, and time on infrastructure. There you have our first point. 

I made however at the beginning of this, a point of using we as opposed to they. I’d like to think we experience a degree of buy-in to events like this. Chances at showing off to the wider Southeast Asian region, our larger band of brothers with economic and cordial ties, don’t come often. Couldn’t we muster some sort of camaraderie among ourselves as a fortified face of hospitality we boast ourselves to be? Watching folks I know unfold online into captions of depravity puts a frown on my face. Sharing information is one thing, but “weaponizing” it to talk our whole nation down is another. 

The SEA Games kicks off on Saturday and with a good deal of hiccups growing obscure in the rear-view mirror. Yes, we shall eventually conduct our investigations and find what went wrong, but can we focus ahead on making the next 12 days of the event about the sports we came to see? Indeed I hope we can.

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