Organizers race against time to host SEA Games

(UPDATED) Every day since September, Bettina Pou has been working feverishly in a hot, dusty room at Rizal Memorial Sports Complex in Manila.

Pou, secretary-general of the Gymnastics Association of the Philippines, the sport’s national governing body, smiles when asked about Carlos Yulo, the golden boy who just returned victorious from the world gymnastics championships in Germany.

Then it’s back to hurried phone calls, emails, and paperwork amid the construction noise of banging and drilling.

Pou is “nervous and stressed”. It is six weeks before the official opening of the 30th Southeast Asian Games. Yet renovations are ongoing to transform the Rizal Memorial Basketball Coliseum into a gymnastics competition venue.

Fourteen container vans of equipment have yet to arrive in the country.

Pou is equally perturbed about the adjacent training area that Southeast Asian gymnasts will use.

“There was no time to renovate it, so it’s just being repainted and patched up. It won’t be air-conditioned and the bathrooms are embarrassing. I’m concerned because this is what we’re showing to the world,” she said.

A look at the gymnastics training area being prepared for the SEA Games. The video was taken Oct. 11. ABS-CBN News

These SEA Games will be the most ambitious so far, with 530 events in 56 sports held across Luzon from November 30 to December 11.

It is a chance for the Philippines to show athletic prowess and attract business and tourism.

Yet a series of roadblocks and hiccups have led to what is now a mad rush to ready the country for the big event.

Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) Chairman William “Butch” Ramirez pointed to two reasons for delayed preparations. “First, the dynamics between POC and PHISGOC officials. Second, the delayed passage of the national budget.”

The POC- or Philippine Olympic Committee- holds the franchise for the SEA Games. The PHISGOC- or Philippine SEA Games Organizing Committee- is an ad hoc group that is supposed to organize and oversee the preparations.

The creation of PHISGOC in 2018 created a deeper divide in an already fragmented POC.

While some POC officials were at the forefront of PHISGOC’s incorporation, others were incensed at being sidelined. Each viewed the other with distrust.

“The old POC wanted all decisions of PHISGOC to pass through them, from procurement to preparations to broadcasting and marketing, even venues,” said incumbent POC President Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino, who was elected in July 2019. “Technically, the friction caused delays.”

“There were enormous disagreements and politics there,” Ramirez said. “PSC was not part of the conflict but I suppose we are partly to blame. We could have intervened.”

Jose “Peping” Cojuangco, Jr., former POC president, and PHISGOC COO Ramon Suzara could not be reached for comment as of writing.

In August 2019, PSC, POC and PHISGOC signed a tripartite agreement and made a commitment to work together.

And there was much work that had to be done.

The bulk of the P6.1 billion SEA Games hosting budget had only been released to the PSC on May 29–about a month after President Duterte signed the 2019 national budget.

Government’s procurement laws involve a lengthy process that takes months, Ramirez said in explaining why equipment requested by many national sports associations have not yet been delivered. A lot of equipment cannot be bought off the shelf. They are manufactured based on specifications and must be shipped to the Philippines from abroad.

He said it would be unfair to put all the blame on the PSC.

“The process begins with a request from PHISGOC for equipment or programs. They submit it to us in PSC and we evaluate the request. Then we forward it to the Department of Budget and Management for final evaluation and approval,” Ramirez said.

House Speaker Cayetano told reporters in New Clark City in Capas town, Tarlac, this week: “Ayaw ko magturuan.”

“Pero mayroon ding late o hindi nag-submit o kaya ’yung nag-submit kulang, so it’s a domino effect,” Cayetano added.

A host country often performs better because of what’s called the “home advantage”. That’s because the home team has an opportunity to train with equipment and facilities to be used in the actual competition, an advantage visiting teams supposedly don’t have.

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