LAST Sunday I decided to drive the 125+ kilometers to Calatagan, Batangas to see for myself the medal competitions for polo. The drive and venue were familiar to me, given that the finals were to be held on one of the polo fields inside the 300-hectare Hacienda Bigaa that Enrique Zobel built. Thankfully, it was an easy drive: I left Makati at 5:30 a.m. and by around 8:30 a.m. I was at the reception of Calatagan Golf Club getting the key to the cottage where I dumped my stuff and freshened up before heading off for the polo field at 10:45 a.m.
I thoroughly enjoyed cheering the Philippine team playing this “sport of Kings,” and if only the cheers counted for points we would have won by a mile. But the championship experience of the Malaysians, the defending champions, showed in the game that mattered. It also looked to me that the thoroughbreds they borrowed from Inigo Zobel were much faster than the thoroughbreds that the Philippine team chose from the Zobel stables. But in any case the match was a sight to behold and both teams – as well as the Brunei and Indonesia teams that battled for bronze in the first match – played so well that in both games the match could have gone either way until the last bell sounded to end the fourth and final chucker.
I had fun posing with the polo mallet that EZ gave me as a souvenir; not having the right polo helmet around I fished out my hard hat from Rio Tuba Nickel and posed with both.
Very few noticed that the hat I had on was for construction (only my UP elem and a high school batch mate John Encarnacion – a world-renowned geologist – did notice and naughtily asked if my sport was road construction!) and to those who inquired what my role in polo was, I simply said I tended the horses.
In the end cheering for your country and your team was – always is – a fulfilling effort and I’d do it again at the drop of a hat – a proper polo helmet to be exact.
The one time I saw a people united behind its athletes was when I witnessed the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 and what an experience that was. I was there when the Birds Nest was filled to the brim with Chinese waiting to see their track and field idol Lu Xiang compete in the 110-meter hurdles, having won the gold four years earlier in Athens. And I saw how many of them left the coliseum in tears when Lu pulled out after a false start that revived an old injury.
I also witnessed how the huge tennis arena would cheer on the hometown favorite, Li Na, during the women’s semifinals. One man would stand and shout “Li Na!” And the whole arena would reverberate with the response “jia you” (meaning “come on” or “go!”)
One time when all was quiet, a burly Russian stood up (Li Na was battling the Russian, Dinara Safina) and at the top of his lungs, all alone in a sea of Chinese, shouted “Safina, jia you!!”
For a split second there was silence. And then the arena reverberated to a long and loud “BOOO!” before dissolving in laughter and applause. That Russian fan deserved a gold medal for courage!
Moments like those you don’t forget.
I think once in your lifetime you have to go watch an international sportsfest and cheer your countrymen. It’s therapeutic. And, if you can afford it (or are lucky enough to work for one of the global sponsors!) once in your life you should watch the Olympics. It’s an unbelievable experience seeing the best athletes of the world pitting themselves against each other for a gold medal and the sense of pride in hearing your anthem played as you stand atop the podium.
And, of course, when the games are well organized it’s a great experience all around.
Whether it’s the opening ceremonies you get to see when the cauldron is lit or the closing when the flame is finally extinguished – or any time in between – it is competition at its highest with the host country doing its best to put up a good show.
The cost? We have to address that somehow. But there are things we have to do as part of a community of nations and hosting a sports event – even just a regional one – is one of them.
For the next SEA Games I hope they can have gymnastics for geriatrics. Maybe I can try out?