Friday, August 29, 2008

Our Olympics performance

After the debacle comes the blame game, very typical of our "damaged" culture. Sports officials point to each other, even congressmen want to investigate.

Today I am publishing a very good analysis of the Philippine non-performance in the recently concluded Beijing Olympics. It is written by Mario Taguiwalo, former Undersecretary of Health in the Aquino presidency, who has distinguished himself among former senior government officials for his keen appreciation of the governance issues that bedevil most every aspect of life in these benighted isles. Here is his take on yet another dashed dream for the elusive Olympiad recognition:


The 2008 Beijing Olympics is over. Let us examine Philippine performance at the Olympics level.

Outcomes were poor.

A total of 15 Filipino athletes competed in 17 events. Twelve of our athletes qualified for 14 events, while three athletes were wild cards entered as part of mandatory participation. Our contestants in shooting, archery, boxing, and taekwondo were all eliminated in their first matches. None of our swimmers and divers progressed to the semi-finals. Our wild cards in men’s and women’s long jump and weightlifting did no better than our qualifiers, or rather our qualifiers did no better than our wild cards. All our contestants ended up at the bottom half of the international field despite their already being the result of national selection and focused attention and effort. Our country did not qualify to participate in any team sport like basketball, volleyball or football. This is already the third Olympics where we did not get any medal, representing a 12-year medal drought. The gaps between world record performance and national record performance in many sports are widening rather than narrowing.

Why would this matter?

If you see any medal awarding ceremony you will understand why this matters. A gold medal performance by one’s countryman in an Olympic event is accompanied by the playing of one’s national anthem while the nation’s flag is raised. We can only imagine the unique power of this symbolic event as far as a nation’s pride, unity and sense of achievement are concerned. Olympic achievement seems to have the power to validate or affirm a nation’s idea of itself as a good, capable and achieving community. It is hard for us Filipinos to imagine how winning a gold medal would benefit our nation but it is clear to many other nations of the world that winning at the Olympics matters a lot to their people.

An Australian expert estimated that it cost his country up to $100 million for each of the 13 gold medals his country won at the Beijing Olympics. Whatever might be the actual monetary cost of achieving every country’s medal harvest, it seems that many nations find the effort worth whatever they are spending on it. Why might this be so?

I think there are two basic benefits from Olympic achievement. First, there is the benefit of winning in terms of pride, affirmation, and satisfaction from being among those countries recognized as among the best in the world in some area of competitive performance. This sense of achievement has the power to induce many good things for the fortunate nation. While there is an element of luck in winning, there is clearly a large portion of preparation and discipline necessary to benefit from any luck that comes one’s way.

The role of preparation and effort necessary to benefit from luck defines what I think is the more important benefit from winning in the Olympics. The effort necessary and actually undertaken to win at the Olympics galvanizes social action that already yields many benefits even before the first gold medal is won. For every Olympic gold medal won, there are probably millions of others who helped win that medal, from parents who nourished their children well enough to become athletes, to teachers who encouraged and guided young people to competitive sports, to businesses that generated the resources necessary to compete at the highest levels, to governments that create the environment to succeed, and the many young people with talent who aspired, competed and succeeded. Winning a medal validates all the social effort and resources devoted to the national goal, even as the social effort and resources expended along the way would have already created their own positive dynamic to strengthen the society and economy.

So why have Philippine outcomes at the Olympics been so poor?

At one level, we might regard our Beijing debacle as a failure of this particular batch of 15 athletes. But since this is our third Olympics with different contingents but with similar results, we should not really blame the individual athletes but rather the sports organizations that yielded them. But since our elite sports organizations can only build upon the larger base of potential talent from our population, their failures might properly be due to our larger social arrangements for sports participation and competition in the whole country. In short, we need a more systemic understanding of the sources of our Olympics failure so that we might discover the appropriate systemic changes to build on the sources of our potential Olympics success.

Let me cite two interesting examples from other countries.

Jamaica is a poor country with a population of 2.6 million. It now has the world’s fastest men and women. It has already won 43 Olympic medals, 42 of which come from the track, with all but one at distances of 400 meters or under. Its population watches football and basketball on TV, but its kids run. It has a championship race for high school runners, called the Champs, which was founded in 1910 and continues today as Jamaica’s biggest annual sporting event attracting up to 2,000 athletes and crowds of 30,000 or more. Every great Jamaican sprinter appears on the Champs honors list. Yet it is merely the tip of a competition pyramid that sees children across the country take part in sprint races from age five.

Despite these long standing strengths, however, the current peak of Jamaican track performance at Beijing has been traced to the country’s effort to keep their top athletes from being pirated by other countries via a scholarship program started 30 years ago. There are now 300 sprinters in this scholarship program. There is a mindset of confidence about them that genuinely believe they can conquer. Their country may be small; they may be poor; but they believe in themselves.

Another example is England, which has seen its performance in Beijing at its best in decades. The country has unveiled a Sport England Strategy 2008-2011, which declares its intention to make the Olympics as its focal point for developing a world-leading community sport system. The strategy is a prime example of what a good country strategy for better Olympic performance in the future might look like.

The strategy aims for a community sports system that will increase public participation in sports, identify and nurture talented people early to progress at the elite level, and insure a quality experience for everyone who plays sports. The aim is to create a "vibrant sporting culture". The strategy provides a broad framework for social participation in Olympics sports that involves government, communities and sports organizations.

What we should be doing?

The first thing we should do is to recognize that we have hit bottom. When the USA basketball team of NBA stars was able to win only the bronze medal at Athens Olympics, its leadership decided that it had hit bottom. They said: "The experience left such a poor taste in everyone’s mouth with our attitude and our performance. Even our own fans were booing the team. It was a sad state of affairs, and we had to make a change." Their gold medal in Beijing is the result of that change, but they did that because they decided they had hit bottom. They did not console themselves with having won a medal.

The second thing we should do is to undertake a credible and systematic evaluation of our country’s Olympic performance. Many countries commission expert teams to look at their sports systems. Even individual institutions undertake periodic evaluation of their sports program. One evaluation I read had this finding: "Leaders lack full understanding of what is needed for athletic success." I wonder if this finding might also apply in the Philippines.

An evaluation should really assess the real potential for the unique contribution of sports to Philippine identity, culture and society and outline what we might realistically do to realize such potential. It is important to identify intermediate goals we should be seeking to meet on the road to eventually becoming a real competitor for Olympic success in the future. The way we evaluate will be crucial to the way we get our act together.