KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – There is simply no way to sugarcoat it – the 2017 Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur was a veritable disaster for Team Philippines.
National sports associations (NSAs) were remarkably hopeful at the start of the country's campaign, projecting a massive haul of 63 gold medals to chef-de-mission Cynthia Carrion – a total that would have been the nation's best since 2005, when it hosted the SEA Games and finished with 113 golds.
Carrion brought down the number of projected gold medals to 50, a more modest total but still incredibly ambitious, considering the Philippines' performance in the past two editions of the SEA Games. Filipino athletes managed only 29 golds in Singapore in 2015, and 29 as well in Napyidaw in 2013.
But as the SEA Games come to a close at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium on Wednesday evening, Team Philippines did not even manage to match their output from two years ago, much less come close to Carrion's projection.
Instead, Team Philippines will go home with only 24 golds – their fewest since the 1999 SEA Games in Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei. Yet 18 years ago, there were only 233 gold medals at stake, a stark contrast to the 404 mints that were contested in the Malaysian capital.
How could the Philippine teams disappointed so profoundly? Carrion has some theories.
SELECTION OF SPORTS
One reason for the Philippines' low medal haul, according to Carrion, is the selection of sports by the host nation. The chef-de-mission is "102%" positive that Malaysia included several sports where they would excel, as evidenced by their incredible haul of 145 gold medals.
More tellingly, sports where the Philippines was virtually assured of gold were removed, added Carrion.
"The sports that we were very good at, like boxing, they removed. Women's weightlifting was removed. Softball, which we're very good at, they removed," said Carrion.
Female boxers did not compete in the 2017 SEA Games, depriving Josie Gabuco, Nesthy Petacio, and Irish Magno a chance to add to the country's medal total. The nation's most celebrated athlete, Olympian Hidilyn Diaz, did not get a chance either as women's weightlifting was not included as well.
The Philippines dominated the softball events in the 2015 SEA Games, but this sport, too, was omitted in Malaysia.
Carrion also admits that they were not expecting Malaysia to be so exceptionally well-prepared for the SEA Games. The host nation targeted 111 gold medals, a total that they exceeded easily.
"It so happened that they did not expect Malaysia to be so good. They did not expect them to be so prepared," Carrion said.
According to Carrion, Malaysia's chef-de-mission bared a remarkable "game plan" that the host nation undertook, with the sole purpose of dominating the SEA Games at home.
"They wanted to win," Carrion said. "They wanted no country to go over them."
And so, Malaysia "worked really, really hard" in preparing for the SEA Games. Scouts were sent all over the country in search for Malaysia's best athletes, and their national teams were sent abroad to train. Foreign coaches were also hired to handle their teams.
Carrion made special note of Malaysia's rhythmic gymnastics team, which is handled by eight foreign coaches.
"They spent a lot of money for it," Carrion said of Malaysia. "They really trained abroad. They sent all the athletes abroad for training, so they were prepared."
BREAKS OF THE GAME
The truth, however, is that the Philippines could have added some more gold medals to their haul if not for some brutally unlucky breaks.
For instance, pole vaulter OJ Obiena – already one of the best in his sport in the whole of Asia – tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee just a day before he was set to fly to Malaysia to compete.
Athletes like boxer Carlo Paalam and taekwondo jin Arven Alcantara found themselves on the losing end of questionable decisions – both coming against Malaysian opponents – that denied them of gold. In Paalam's case, it ensured that he will be the lone boxer in the Philippine team to go home without a medal.
Some other athletes who were thought to be sure bets for gold succumbed to injuries or bad breaks, as well. Wushu artist Daniel Parantac competed even though he was still recovering from a knee injury, and was shut out of the podium in the sport that he has dominated for nearly half a decade.
Indeed, the only teams that managed to fully deliver on their promises were the boxing team, which won two golds as projected, the artistic gymnastics team, also with two golds, and the athletics team with five golds.
The Philippine tracksters could have added one more mint, if Eric Cray had been given a friendlier schedule. Instead, the Fil-Am star was forced to run the finals of the 400-m hurdles and the 100-m on the same night; he kept his gold in the 400-m hurdles, but settled for the silver in the 100-m as he was pipped by a fresher Malaysian athlete.
PREPS FOR 2019
Given the issues that hounded Team Philippines in 2017, Carrion believes that the path is clear as to how the country can recover in the 2019 SEA Games, which it will be hosting.
She admits that they will put some thought into adding more sports that the Philippines usually dominate, including boxing.
But more than anything, the key is preparation.
"We have to start as soon as we get home," Carrion said of the preparations for the 2019 SEA Games.
"We have to start today. When we get back home, we have to start," she emphasized. "We cannot wait any longer."
Perhaps, she said, the Philippines can take a page from Malaysia's playbook and look all over the country for the best athletes as well. It will also be important to send the teams abroad for more exposure and more rigorous training – a position shared by several of the national team coaches.
"More foreign coaches, more exposure," Carrion said. "They (Malaysia) said they were exposed to every competition."
The Philippines might even limit the number of sports, said Carrion. There were 38 sports contested in Malaysia, but that number may go down in the Philippines in 2019 with the hopes that there will be greater focus on Olympic sports.
When the Philippines last hosted the SEA Games in 2019, Filipino athletes won 113 gold medals – a total that has never been surpassed. When asked if the country will again dominate the biennial meet two years from now, Carrion paused delicately before saying, "I hope so."
"(We should) aim high," she added.
Meanwhile, Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) president Jose "Peping" Cojuangco appealed for support for the athletes, despite their historically poor performance in the 29th SEA Games.
"All of us, including the critics, should rally behind the 2019 Philippine hosting and support our athletes in any way we can," Cojuangco said in a statement ahead of the closing ceremonies in Bukit Jalil.
(For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.)