Two towering heroes of the 23rd SEA Games
HIGH GROUND By William M. Esposo 2005-12-12
IT should be worth probing whether Filipino excellence in sports has an inverse relationship with national crisis. The results of the 1991 and 2005 SEA Games that were both held here seem to support the hypothesis that when the nation is under severe stress due to a crisis, Filipinos – competing athletes and sports spectators alike – shine and make a patriotic statement.
Before the 2005 SEA Games, it was in the 1991 staging of the games when the Filipinos performed their best, placing second in the gold medal haul and was only one gold medal shy from the top gold medalist country. But when both the 1991 and 2005 SEA Games were held here, it was under the backdrop of big national crises that threatened to create nightmare scenarios for Filipinos.

During the 1991 SEA Games, the nation was desperately coping with a series of coup attempts against the Cory Aquino administration, and the last one which was launched in December 1, 1989 almost succeeded. The great leaps of the economy following the restoration of democracy in 1986 were negated. Coup jitters became the substance that fueled national paranoia. Day after day, Filipinos wondered if democracy will survive and if the country will ever have peace.

When the 2005 SEA Games that ended with a flourish last Monday was staged, the nation was also under a similar severe stress – this time from the Gloria-Garci controversy and the series of maneuvers to deprive the Filipino of the truth. Worse than the 1991 national crisis, today the Filipinos are undergoing internal psychological turmoil as the nation tries to determine what it wants and where it is going.

At least in 1991, the Filipinos knew that they wanted democracy to flourish. They had a clear idea who was the enemy – the one trying to deprive them of democracy. The conflict was as clear to them as black and white. It is not quite the same in 2005.

Today the Filipinos are trapped in a web of disillusionment. They desire a new social contract that would dispel their deep cynicism about the democracy that did not improve their economic lot. They seek liberation from a failed system that neither offered enlightened leadership nor reform. They want to be rid of a president who failed public trust on one hand and an opposition that does not merit public trust on the other.

One would expect that a nation under such a severe stress would have been too distracted to excel in sports against opponents who do not bear the same burden. The 23rd staging of the SEA Games proved that the Filipino shines the brightest under the severest of stress. A nation that has long been suffering from degradation from its neighbors in the region whom it once bested economically forty years ago – has now decided to assert its greatness just as it did in 1986 when it taught the world a new dimension in the restoration of democracy.

Sheila Mae Perez, triple gold medal winner in the diving competitions of the 2005 games, epitomized that greatness and heroism. Sheila Mae’s tears flowed upon hearing her national anthem play when she was awarded her gold medal – the perfect symbolism of the Filipino nation weeping over the sorry state of the country, seeking to let loose the repressed potential of a great race that is plagued with the worst type of leaders.

Sheila Mae rose above the demoralization that the national crisis imposed and instead opted to take her inspiration from her family and the thought that she represented her people and country. Sheila Mae was also deeply grateful to her countrymen who – despite the relatively poor following for diving competitions here – came out in great numbers to cheer and inspire her to victory.

While caught in the euphoria of her great moment and asked what would now be her most fervent wish, Sheila Mae said that she wanted to dive for all the pearls in the sea and give these away to all her suffering people. Now that is a truly great Filipino. Watching her say that on television gave me a big lump in the throat and I wondered why we do not see this greatness in the people who now lead us on the road to perdition.

Another hero that emerged from the 23rd SEA Games was Mikee Cojuangco, a lassie who grew up from right under my very own eyes. Mikee was in her early adolescent years when I first met her during the time when I was heading the Cory Aquino Media Bureau for the 1986 Snap Elections. Perhaps impressed by what she saw in me, I remember Mikee offering to manage my campaign if and when I decide to run for senator!

Hero of the last Asian Games, Mikee no longer planned to be a participant in the equestrian competitions but was just supposed to be the organizer of the event, assisting her father – Philippine Olympic Committee President Jose “Peping” Cojuangco. However, only days before the competitions, a member of the Philippine equestrian team could not make it and Mikee had to fill the gap so that the team will be complete.

On top of that, Mikee had to mount a steed that she never rode before because her horse, Luisita, was recovering from injury and was not fit for competition. Equestrian being a horse and rider collaboration, the situation was an accident waiting to happen and it did.

In one of the hurdles, Mikee’s horse made an unusual approach that sent a signal that the mount had second thoughts about jumping. Then, the horse changed its mind and took the hurdle in such an awkward manner that resulted in its hoofs smashing the top bars and causing Mikee to have a dangerous fall. It was the type of a fall where one’s back and spine took the full brunt of the impact. Mikee’s feet and hands were all up in the air as her back crashed to the ground from a height that must have been anywhere from 8 to 10 feet. It was one fall that had all the indications that the rider is out of the competition for good.

But being the true champion that she is – Mikee rejoined the competition and allowed her team not just to finish but to win the gold medal in the event. She admitted that her body was sore from the fall and that the pain will be worse the next day. But to a champion, there is always the next day to experience the pain. That day was set for competition and for winning. Compete and win was what she did.

The 23rd SEA Games is another showcase of the collective heroism of the Filipino people. For sure, there are other athletes who deserve a similar accolade as what I now give Sheila and Mikee. It is not only the athletes who won but also those who lost but gave their all for flag and country who deserve our praise and gratitude. The Filipino people too deserve their just recognition because their attendance and support provided the boost in morale that could make the difference that separates a champion from a runner-up.

For me it was a bittersweet experience. The night before when I watched Mikee fall and ride again and that morning when I watched that television interview of Sheila Mae Perez, my faith in the Filipino was boosted. I’m sure it had the same effect on every Filipino who also watched it. The experience was like an oasis to a Filipino soul that has been wandering through a long arid desert of failed and petty leadership that brought a great nation to its worst social conditions and moral crisis.

I have seen great Filipinos – Ninoy Aquino, Jaime Ferrer, Jose Diokno, Evelio Javier, Ed Jopson, Jaime Cardinal Sin, to name a few of recent vintage – but Mikee’s leadership in defying all odds and the simple innocence and pure intentions of Sheila Mae drove home the point that (just like Ninoy Aquino said it) the Filipino is worth fighting and dying for.

The experience also reinforced the point that the salvation of the country is in the hands of the great Filipino people themselves and not in the hands of the self-seeking leeches that control the levers of power.

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