JAKARTA -- The 2018 Asian Games offered plenty of lessons to Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) president Ricky Vargas, in what was his first major event as the head of the POC.
Some five months after he officially took over as POC president, Vargas led the Philippine delegation in the Asian Games in Jakarta, and his abundant energy during the opening ceremonies at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium last August 16 caught the attention of many.
Vargas went on to witness as Filipina athletes delivered four gold medals in the Asiad, including a historic mint from 19-year-old skateboarder Margielyn Didal. He flew all the way to Palembang to witness Didal’s triumph, and later described the skateboarding event as “breathtaking.”
But the Asian Games was also quite frustrating for Vargas, whose own federation, the Association of Boxing Alliances in the Philippines, the sport's national governing body was unable to produce a gold medal. He was proud of the effort of the Filipino boxers but upset at the judging -- a sentiment shared by quite a few other countries.
In a message shared to reporters on Sunday morning, Vargas offered some reflections ahead of the Games’ closing ceremonies.
“By all indications, the 2018 Asian Games was a success for Team Philippines,” noted Vargas.
True enough, the country quadrupled its gold medal output, as it had only one gold in Incheon, South Korea, four years ago, courtesy of Daniel Caluag. The Philippines also rose in the medal table, from 22nd to 19th -- though it was still off the goal of No. 15 that the POC had set ahead of the Games.
“Still acceptable,” Vargas said.
Yet Vargas’s foremost realization was that despite the improved performance of the Philippine athletes in Jakarta and Palembang, “there are so many things that we still need to do.”
He stressed that national sports associations (NSAs) “need to clean up their act” and stop the internal power struggles that prevent them from maximizing the talent of their athletes. “NSAs must foster inclusivity, transparency, and accountability,” said Vargas.
The POC president also called for greater cooperation with the Philippine Sports Commission as well as with the private sector, while pointing out that sports “needs to be brought back to cabinet-level in government.”
Grassroots development and talent identification should be prioritized as well, said Vargas. He noted that some of the most successful Filipino athletes in the Asian Games were quite young -- including 17-year-old golfer Yuka Saso and the aforementioned Didal.
“They are the next generation. Biro mo, mayroon kang 17-year-old that won in golf. Hindi na excuse ‘yung maturity,” Vargas earlier told reporters.
In his letter to media, Vargas said: “The emergence of young talent in these Games point to the fact that fresh young faces with boundless energy, fierce determination, and gung-ho spirit are coming to the fore.”
“We need to find more of them,” he emphasized.
There is of course the need to focus on medal-rich sports such as athletics and aquatics, which the Philippines has sadly fallen behind on. None of the Filipino track stars or swimmers made a dent in the medal tally in the Asiad.
“Our neighboring countries are killing us in these arenas,” said Vargas.
“We need to work on having Asian, regional, as well as Olympic sports taught and played in schools,” he also said. “We need to work at improving in sports that we can be competitive in, such as shooting, archery, bowling.”
Before leaving Jakarta, Vargas told reporters that the focus must be on the Filipino athlete -- a sentiment that he doubled down on in his open letter.
“It’s all about the athlete,” he said. “Train them well, provide for their needs, keep them motivated, inspired and focused. Shield them from politics.”
“They can and will deliver.”
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