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Rules stacked against POC rivals of Peping

Jose “Peping” Cojuangco Jr. appears headed for a fourth four-year term as president of the Philippine Olympic Committee.

The POC election will be held on Nov. 26 and the deadline for the filing of candidacies for president and other positions will be on Oct. 24.d

As of yesterday, Cojuangco, 82, president of the POC since 2004, is the only declared candidate for president although a few names have emerged as possible rivals.

If elected, he would be the longest serving head of the committee which oversees the country’s participation in such international events as the Southeast Asian Games, the Asian Games, and the Olympic Games.

Despite Cojuangco’s lack of popularity with sports sectors because of the country’s dismal performance in these sporting events through the length of his watch, his election is almost certain.

He has many detractors inside and outside the POC, but none of them is willing to take him head on.

While some of them privately criticize Cojuangco, no one appears willing to speak on record, afraid perhaps that the powerful Cojuangco might squeeze their associations out of international competitions. The POC chief, of course, has a very big say on who can and cannot go abroad to compete.

Some are hoping that, with his advancing age and his long and sorry track record, Cojuangco would voluntarily step down and give way to those who can energize and revitalize Philippine sports.

Under Cojuangco, the country has suffered multiple debacles in the international scene.

In the 2013 Southeast Asian Games, the Philippines ranked seventh (29 gold medals), its worst ever, and in 2015, it ranked sixth and staggered home with the least number of gold medals (26) in more than a decade.

In the 2014 Asian Games, the country won just one gold medal. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, the country did win a silver medal, but the POC hardly had anything to do with it. Instead, it was the Philippine Weightlifting Association that carried silver medalist Hidilyn Diaz all the way to the winning podium, giving the country its first Olympic medal in 20 years.

With so much money invested in sports—over a billion pesos in the past decade alone—and with a population of over 100 million that can only be a veritable source of athletic talent, many gnash their teeth: why do we Filipinos fare so poorly in international sports?

Those in the know say that the lack of a cohesive sports program and planned grassroots development are major reasons. They also point to the inadequate government and private support and a backward and uninspiring leadership.

Despite his string of humiliations and failures, Cojuangco wants to go into his twilight years as POC president. His big claim is that sports leaders and athletes themselves want him to stay.

He also says, of course, that the post is open to anyone who wants to aspire for it.

That may be true. But in 12 years, Cojuangco’s rubber-stamp board, through its many configurations, has always been alert and quick to tweak the rules of engagement to make it nearly impossible for anyone to challenge the chief.

Take just one: A candidate must have served as NSA president for at least four years, and must have regularly attended the bi-monthly general assembly meetings.

Under this rule alone, only Cojuangco and his cohorts, who have divided among themselves the juiciest positions in the POC, are qualified to run for president.

Sports officials such as Manny Pangilinan, Ricky Vargas, Popoy Juico, Abraham Tolentino, and Mariano Araneta, who can arguably give new direction to local sports, are not qualified. They don’t attend regular POC meetings because they know these meetings accomplish nothing and are mere social gatherings where Cojuangco lords it over the talking and the feasting.

“The problem with Cojuangco is that he believes he is God’s gift to Philippine sports,” says one NSA president who asked for anonymity.

“When you talk to him, he thinks there’s nothing wrong with Philippine sports, that it’s doing very well, and it’s all thanks to him.”

Asked why he does not run against Cojuangco, he says it is impossible to win in a POC presidency election because the “system is rigged.”

Apparently, Cojuangco is able to cement his hold on the POC with the help of the Philippine Sports Commission, whose last chairman, Ricardo Garcia, was appointed by President Benigno Aquino III through Cojuangco’s intercession.

In the six years that Garcia was chairman, he practically played sidekick to Cojuangco, following the latter’s bidding, when the PSC was created precisely to help all NSAs.

Instead, Garcia became adept at disbursing bigger amounts of public money to NSAs that were tight with the POC leadership. Effectively, this kept many NSAs in line, lest crossing the POC chief left their athletes destitute.

In turn, Garcia was painfully emasculated as PSC head, having little work other than being with Cojuangco in their trips abroad and their regular golf games.

Under their setup, no athlete can travel abroad without the financial backing of the PSC. The PSC provides money for training, allowances, salaries of foreign coaches, and plane fares for athletes to compete overseas.

If Cojuangco and his cohorts think that an NSA and its head are getting critical of the POC and, worse, planning to displace them, that NSA can have its budget suddenly reduced by the PSC, or, as events have shown, its head subjected to an audit aimed at getting him dislodged.

It’s a pity because Garcia had a number of sound ideas to improve athletes’ performance, but ended up often deferring to his patron and boss, Cojuangco, who actually needed Garcia so as not to appear clueless about sports.

If the former PSC chief had not been beholden to the PSA boss, the PSC could have chartered a different and better course and greatly boosted sports in the country.

If the country has not been lucky in sports, sports has been lucky for Cojuangco and his coterie, which includes Joey Romasanta, Steve Hontiveros, Julian Camacho, Tom Carrasco, and others in his close circle who, observe others, are perpetually jet-lagged from constant traveling from one sports event to another, and sports seminars and meetings abroad.

Add to all this, Cojuangco’s POC receives a stipend from the International Olympic Committee, but that amount has never been made public nor has an accounting been known to be made.

But one thing is certain: The POC has not spent a single centavo for sports development. Neither has it provided any cash incentive to outstanding athletes.

But with the election just weeks away, Cojuangco is likely to get another four-year mandate.

And if his track record is an indication, expect more of the same in the next four years.