James de los Santos has had enough.
Yesterday, the six-time Philippine National Games Senior champion and two-time SEA Games medalist—he won a bronze two years ago in Kuala Lumpur—shared a lengthy post on Facebook. In the post, he decries his exclusion from the lineup to the upcoming Philippine-hosted SEAG as well as a host of injustices within Karate Pilipinas, Inc. (KPI), which is the National Sports Association (NSA) for Karate in the country.
The athlete shared this online after several social media posts from his colleagues Bern Tacay, Gretchen Malalad, and De los Santos's father Ruben. All three vehemently say in their respective posts that de los Santos should be part of the contingent, and are seemingly baffled by their NSA’s decisions.
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Issues and challenges have been circling the local Karate community for years. Early 2018, the Philippine Karate Federation even lost international recognition from the World Karate Association—the sport's global governing body—due to misuse of funds. A couple of years ago, de los Santos and some of his contemporaries stood up and made statements against these controversies. Prompted by this, PSC Commissioner Ramon Fernandez, he says, even came to his house in Cebu on two separate occasions in December 2017. “He convinced me and my parents that there will be a change in karate,” de los Santos recalls. This public move eventually allowed KPI, and its current president Richard Lim, to take over as Karate's NSA in the Philippines.
"Sorry to say, the change I was expecting to see, didn’t happen. The only change is them changing me,” he says. In an interview with ANCX, de los Santos expresses his regrets for standing up for change back then. “If I could have foreseen what is happening today, I would not have stood up for ‘change,’” he says, emphasizing that its ironic that the people who allowed Lim to attain his position are being taken out.
In his long and fiery rebuke of his sport’s governing body, de los Santos writes that KPI has not provided him any support, and that he felt he was being singled out. “[The NSA president] will claim that he sent us to more tournaments, but he did not provide the proper training," he says. “This NSA President has been ruling by fear. He has everybody on a tight rope and is using the SEA Games lineup as a leverage. That is why he was so late in coming up with the final lineup.” Now, the Karateka says, that the roster is dominated by largely unqualified athletes from Lim's own club.
On his own
“When someone does harm to my family—like to my son—I can’t just sit in a corner and be quiet,” said de los Santos’ father Ruben in his own post.
The older de los Santos claims that in five major competitions that his son and his teammates competed in from 2018 to 2019, they’ve only won two bronze medals. “[The new NSA president] can’t claim Junna Tsukii’s medal as she has basically been on her own, through her personal sponsors who financially support her international tournaments and trainings,” he says, pertaining to another Karateka who has publicly voiced her own problems with the NSA. “So only one bronze medal for all the five major international tournaments! Incidentally, for those five tournaments, James did not have a coach who could take him to the next level!” he adds.
“He says James hasn’t been winning? It’s the whole team that wasn’t winning! Take note of his own players from his personal club. How did they do? Did they win? In any sport, when the team is losing that bad, the responsibility starts at the top!” Ruben says. “You don’t change players, you change the leadership first! That’s where the blame starts. That’s where change begins. He not only failed but he failed the players.”
Tsukii, who won the bronze in the 50KG Kumite in last year’s Asian Games, expressed her own issues of the NSA on Facebook. “They [told] me that ‘if you don't follow our side, we will take away your sponsors and take away your right to play to the tournament.’ This is power harassment for athletes,” she says “Except Japan, my world rank is 10th and Asia is 4th. I still have a chance to go to the Olympics, but they lied to the PSC that I had no chance anymore and they hinder my activities.”
She says that she was lucky to have found her own sponsors, but “some people in the federation have come to say that I am a selfish player who is acting always alone, and they start to attack me and they said me that ‘you do not respect the federation.’”
Behind closed doors
James felt that he had to speak after two “final straws.”
“The first was when I was abandoned last August. All the kata players were sent to Japan under government support except me. Being a senior member of the team—second in seniority—that was highly irregular,” he says in the ANCX interview, claiming that the ones that did get sent to the international training were unqualified juniors who did not even win a silver at last year's Philippine National Games.
The second, he claims, was what he described as an orchestrated and rigged evaluation. “I was hesitant at first, but after days of thinking, I felt I needed to come out and tell the truth,” he says. “This is not how I envisioned the sport’s future. This is not what I stood up for. In fact, I am regretful at this time, because of our actions, it put the current president of the NSA in place.”
In his Facebook post, he described the November 7 evaluation further.
After being left off the training in Japan and without being given proper coaching, de los Santos knew something was wrong when he was told of an evaluation so close to the regional event. “Despite trying to stay positive, I had a feeling that my fate was already sealed and this evaluation was just being orchestrated to give them an ‘official reason’ to not include me in the SEA Games lineup.” The deadline for the submission of the lineup, according to James, was actually in October.
The 29-year-old says that the aforementioned evaluation took place behind closed doors, and only the national coaches, kata players, and five judges under KPI were present. “When I saw who the five judges were, it was already a dead giveaway. They were Kumite judges who were unqualified to judge international level kata,” he denounces. “I also noticed that the NSA president and vice president were not there in the evaluation room. Why was that? Why was the evaluation exclusive only to the coaches and referees to see?” James elected not to perform his Kata Sansai (“a very strong kata”) because he knew the judges weren’t familiar with it since it is not performed in the Philippine circuit, only internationally.
The result was as he expected—he was excluded from the lineup. “After the result, the foreign Kumite coach and local kata coaches had the nerve to tell me that my performance went down, and told me not to go back to my sensei in Japan,” he exclaims in all caps in his post. “Who are they to criticize my Japanese sensei? My sensei in Japan is well-respected and has produced champions and currently has players in the Japan National Team. What have the Philippine National Team kata coaches produced? Who are their champions?”
New versus old
When he was excluded from the training in Japan last August, James says he sought out other ways to prepare for the SEAG. “Fortunately, with the help of my sponsor TMS Shipping Agency and my personal savings, I was able to fund myself to train in Japan for 50 days.”
During his stay there, James admits that he learned many things that he had never acquired during his years on the national team. “I learned so much about Shotokan, which is my kata style. For my new Kata, Sansai, I went to the Gensei-Ryu Karatedo International dojo, which was the original school of the Gensei-Ryu style and where the Kata, Sansai, originated,” he shares. “They made technical adjustments on me for this kata. I’m very grateful to Kazuo Saito sensei, Masa Saito, and Asian/World kata champion Nozomi Yamanaka for helping take my kata to the next level.”
But when he came back to Manila, he says that his coaches here tried to reverse the trainings and teachings he learned in Japan. “Every time I would try to share with them what I learned in Japan, they would shrug it off and correct more of what I learned and basically were trying to make me go back to what I was doing before in my kata, before I left for training in Japan.”
In his interview with ANCX, he continued to criticize the NSA’s final lineup, saying that Lim had his own agenda. “As you can see, the roster has 11 players coming from his dojo. This is the first time in all my 11 years as an elite member of the national team that this many players from one dojo have occupied that many spots. There are also two coaches from his dojo who are on the roster,” he explains. “The reason I am saying this is because there are hundreds of clubs and instructors from around the country and it’s hard to believe that all the good ones come from one club. As an NSA president, he should not be biased and there should be more diversity in the NSA.”
In his post, he questioned the qualifications of some of the players in the roster. “The one replacing me in the upcoming SEA Games has achievements in the junior level. He is the son of the KPI vice president. The SEA Games is a senior level tournament. The only international tournament where he competed in the senior individual kata was in the 2019 Southeast Asian Championships,” he says. “He was knocked out in the first round while I made it to the second round. You cannot compare junior to senior. The level of competition is very different.”
Starting when he was 13 years old, de los Santos has been involved in the sport for close to 17 years, and a national athlete for 11. “I was a Junior member for three years. During that time, I trained with the seniors, but I never traveled to international trainings or tournaments. I had to work my way up the ladder,” he says. “Unlike today, even if these athletes are not qualified, they are being sent to international trainings and tournaments immediately."
Even before de los Santos published his side online, many of his contemporaries have come to his defense, particularly Tacay and Malalad.
Tagging de los Santos and others in his own Facebook post, Tacay could not hide his disappointment over the events that transpired. “After arriving from your month-long and spartan-like training in Japan, you did not expect this thing to happen, you did not see this coming—you were replaced! Is that how they treat their heroes? Is that how they repay you? Who’s next?” James’ sensei says.
Malalad, who has been in the news for her comments about the funding of athletes in lieu of the public outcry over the price of the SEAG cauldron, echoes the sentiments of her friends, saying that de los Santos deserved to be included in the roster. “He is the best kata player in the senior’s division. It’s a travesty that KPI excluded him from the team,” she shares.
“Eighteen years ago when I was starting in the national team, we filed a complaint to the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) for corruption, neglect and unfair treatment of athletes by the head of the federation and the owner of AAK karate club, which we were also members of,” she recalls. Lim, she reveals, was one of the coaches back then and his late father was the president. “It comes as no surprise that since he power grabbed, manipulated and formed another karate federation, Lim has favored students from his club to be included in the SEA Games lineup,” she adds. “Eleven of his students, majority [of whom have] no prior medal record, are the new members of the karate national squad. Sports leaders, the PSC and POC should intervene. We shouldn’t allow one individual to deprive our country of potential medals because of his personal agenda.”
Echoing Malalad’s criticism over funding, de los Santos says that he read that there was PHP 1.2 billion allocated for the SEA Games training of the National Athletes. “Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, I was not included in this PHP 1.2 billion. The reason being, the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) will allocate a budget to each NSA. The NSA will have the discretion on how to spend it,” he says. “From what I see, this is how the new Karate NSA spent that money; they sent unqualified players to these trainings. Also, they included coaches, which is normal because they will monitor the training. However, why does the NSA president have to visit using government funds to check on the team? The coaches are adults and this should be their function.”
James says that since his post, PSC chairman Butch Ramirez has been in touch. “However, he told me that he has no jurisdiction over the NSA,” he shares.
For now, de los Santos will continue to train on his own, and work on finishing his degree at De La Salle University-Manila. “I only have two more subjects to finish. I have put my degree on hold because I have been serving my country as a full-time national athlete,” the Cebuano says.
James was 15 when the SEAG was last hosted by the Philippines. “I was fortunate that the Karate event was held in my province, Cebu, and I was able to watch. When I watched the national Karate team compete that time, it inspired me to train hard so that one day, I would qualify for the national team and represent in the SEA Games, especially here in our country,” Fourteen years later, the SEA Games is hosted here again in the Philippines,” he shares.
“I waited this long for this moment to happen. It has always been a dream for me to compete in a SEA Games hosted by my country. Sadly, that dream was snatched away from me.”