Return to normalcy a big question for sports in 2021

Published January 2, 2021, 10:19 AM

by Tito Talao

Olympic Rings are seen a the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne, amid the spread of the COVID-19. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Amid the slew of cancelled sports spectacles worldwide last year, the sputtering attempts to restart in empty arenas stalled events, and the success of an experimental bubble, the single biggest question for 2021 is “Will the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics, initially calendared in mid-2020 at the height of a deadly global pandemic, finally see the light of day this July?”

The high lords of the International Olympic Committee and their counterparts in the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games hope so, and both have expressed confidence that the lives and safety of 15,000 athletes from over 200 countries, not to mention hundreds of thousands of spectators, will not be placed at risk in what could potentially be a catastrophic super-spreader event.

thomas bach
International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach (AFP Photo / Fabrice COFFRINI)

In a recent visit to Tokyo, Thomas Bach, the IOC president, told Time magazine: “Japan has really been planning very diligently and the IOC, on our side, will work very closely with the National Olympic Committees, and with athletes and officials, so we have our package of countermeasures from both partners.”

Over here, newly reelected Philippine Olympic Committee president Bambol Tolentino and Philippine Sports Commission chairman Butch Ramirez are rallying forces to increase the number of Olympic-bound Filipino athletes after gymnast Carlos Yulo, pole vaulter EJ Obiena, and boxers Eumir Felix Marcial and Irish Magno made the grade via qualifying tournaments.

PSC chairman Butch Ramirez (left) and POC president Bambol Tolentino

Among others hoping to join the flight to Tokyo through rescheduled qualifiers are skateboarder Margie Didal, weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, judoka Kiyomi Watanabe, track athletes Kyla Richardson and Willie Morrison, cyclists Ariana Dormitorio and Daniel Caluag, and boxer Nesthy Petecio.

Olympic-bound athletes boxer Eumir Felix Marcial, pole vaulter EJ Obiena, gymnast Carlos Yulo, boxer Irish Magno (Handout Photos)

The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines could help allay fears of mass infection in a big way although recent reports of an apparent mutated variant of the virus has ignited renewed concerns.

So let the Games begin!

Vietnam SEA Games on deck  

Watching closely at developments in the next few months and at how organizers of the Tokyo Games would pull off the gargantuan task — should the Olympic flame does get lit on July 23 — will be the Olympic Council of Asia as Hanoi hosts the 31st Southeast Asian Games from November 21 to December 2.

As little as 36 sports are expected to be played in the biennial meet with 11 nations participating, led by the defending overall champion Philippines.

The national athletes, coaches and sports officials during the closing ceremony of the 30th Southeast Asian Games at the New Clark City. (MB File Photo)

Behind the battlecry ‘We Win as One,’ the host of the 30th SEA Games in 2019 welcomed 5,630 athletes from the region who waged war in 530 events from a record 56 sports.

And before the dust settled, the Philippines wrapped up the overall championship with 149 golds, 117 silvers and 121 bronzes, runaway numbers the national athletes would probably find Herculean to duplicate or even approximate given the nature of varying format of the Games which usually favor the host country.

Vietnam sports officials have been adamant in their insistence to hold only Olympic and Asian Games sports this time, and the shift could dramatically impact the Philippines’ bid to retain the overall title, or even come up with a decent finish.

Tolentino isn’t giving up the fight though even as he pondered the realities.

“We will find it hard to keep the title because of that issue on the number and type of sports that will be played,” he said. “But I cannot allow our team to plummet back to sixth or seventh [like it did] before we won the overall in 2019.”

No more PBA bubble?

The Barangay Ginebra Gin Kings celebrate their championship with the Jun Bernardino Perpetual Trophy at the AUF Arena last Dec. 9. (PBA Images)

It held on and didn’t burst in those eight or so weeks, that bubble. But as successful as it was, the Philippine Basketball Association is, nonetheless, not looking to live life in another carpeted and air-conditioned Alcatraz, even if it boasts off a gym, golf course and late-night service.

Pencilled for April 9, 2021, the 46th PBA season is set to follow the celebrated bubble experiment in Clark, Pampanga where Barangay Ginebra San Miguel fought off the TNT Tropang Giga in five games during the Finals of the Philippine Cup, which marked the completion of a shortened 45th season.

For more than two months, a 350-man PBA delegation, along with five media men, took up residence at the Quest Hotel in Clark, getting driven by bus to the Angeles University Foundation Sports and Cultural Center and back during game days.

The coming PBA season will have one critical difference.

Instead of a bubble, the league plans to implement a ‘closed-circuit format.’

“The closed-circuit concept is more lenient, requiring home-venue-home scheme, not a lockdown in one place for the entire delegation as what we did in Clark,” said PBA commissioner Willie Marcial, who took note of the mental anguish endured by all.

Willie Marcial
PBA commissioner Willie Marcial (PBA Images)

“Nakita ko na nahirapan ang mga players at coaches lalo na noong first month,” Marcial said.

The proposed closed-circuit arrangement will limit the movements of teams from their homes to the playing venues or practice facilities and vice versa, eliminating astronomical transportation and board-and-lodging expenses and giving ballclub personnel access to their immediate families unlike during their stay in Clark.

Fans remain off limits in the playing venues and training facilities though.

FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers set

So back to Clark they go.

Chosen by the International Basketball Federation to host qualifiers to the FIBA Asia Cup, which will take place in Jakarta, Indonesia this August, the Philippines will be housing Group A and Group C games late next month at the Angeles University Foundation Sports and Cultural Center, retracing the bubble conference path blazed by the PBA a few weeks ago.

The country will host Group A action with Gilas Pilipinas facing longtime tormentor South Korea twice, outside Indonesia and Thailand.

Gilas Pilipinas swept its assignments against Thailand in a bubble setup of the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers in Bahrain. (Photo from FIBA)

Group C nations Australia, New Zealand, Guam and Hong Kong will also contest slots at the AUF gym, with Quest Hotel in Clark as living quarters.

“The Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas is honored and humbled to be chosen as one of the hosts for the last round FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers this coming February,” said SBP president Al Panlilio in a statement.

“We are thankful for FIBA’s trust in our capacity to host not just a successful tournament but, more importantly, a safe one. We’re glad to have met their health standards and are looking forward to welcoming Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand as well as Australia, New Zealand, Guam, and Hong Kong from Group C.”

Two weeks ago, SBP executive director Sonny Barrios led a group that included Gilas coach Jong Uichico in conducting an ocular inspection of both the playing venue and the resident hotel.

Other events could follow

If run without a hitch, the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers could open the doors a fraction of an inch in allowing other postponed events to get going this year.

Scheduled are the Asian Indoor Martial Arts tournament from May 21 to 30 in Bangkok and Chonburi in Thailand, AIBA World Boxing Championships in April in Belgrade, Serbia, and a number of Olympic qualifying events.

UAAP Opening
In a statement, the UAAP said it will help with the crafting of the guidelines for the resumption of training of collegiate athletes. (MB File Photo / Jansen Romero)

Locally, the country’s premier collegiate leagues, the NCAA and UAAP, had cancelled last year regular season launches but have closed deals with separate TV partners for planned reboots in 2021 should government health regulators flick on the green light.

Also on hand to draw the curtains are track and field (National Open at New Clark City in March), boxing, online chess, pro volleyball and pro football and several others that would come out of the woodwork once they get the approval to do so.

Overall, 2021 could be when mankind resurrects hopes for a return to new normalcy, not only in sports but also in the economy, global awareness of health threats, and in the preservation of life.

Unless a virulent menace refuses to go down and stay down.