great milestone, like any journey, always starts with a single step.
That holds true as the hosting of a massive project such as the 30th Southeast Asian Games also kicked off with a collaboration and teamwork. It began with a small group of sports officials, who volunteered to do it just to make the country proud.
But the country isn’t supposed to host the biennial meet this year. Had the original hosting cycle been followed, Manila would still take its turn in 2025 following Brunei in 2019, Hanoi in 2021 and Phnom Penh in 2023.
But during a crucial Southeast Asian Games Federation Council meeting just a few days before Singapore hosted the 28th edition of the Games in 2015, a small miracle happened. Brunei National Olympic Council vice president Hj Muhd Zamri
Paduka Hj Hamdani took the floor to announce that his country had no capacity to host the SEA Games in 2019.
Brunei, a tiny state south of Manila, hosted the Games in 1999.
This time, however, Hamdani stressed that Brueni cannot build infrastructures and facilities with only four years before its turn.
“It is much regret for us to inform the Council today the news we have just received that we are withdrawing our hosting for 2019,” said Hamdani before the powerful policy-making body.
“The main reason was that we lack sports facilities, accommodation and preparation for our athletes.”
The Council failed to hide its shock. Then, former Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) secretary general Steve Hontiveros raised his hand.
“I told them that if Brunei can’t do it, we can,” Hontiveros, a long-time official who has strong ties with the international sports
community, later said.
Thailand, which was represented by its Olympic committee chief in Gen. Tuthasak Sasiprapha, shot back, saying that his country was also ready to host the biennial meet.
The Thais have the infrastructures and facilities following their successful hosting of the Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Nakhon Ratchasima editions of the Games.
But Hontiveros stood his ground. “They really wanted it,” he said. “But Cong (former POC president Jose “Peping” Cojuangco) made it clear that we have no plan of surrendering our hosting. That was already ours.”
With the SEA Games hosting safely tucked under its belt, the POC reached out to newly-elected President Rodrigo Duterte to map out a plan.
The Chief Executive, a sport aficionado from Davao City, got the ball rolling when he appointed Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri to serve as the third man in a powerful panel composed of Cojuangco and Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) chairman William “Butch” Ramirez.
But the road to a perfect hosting was littered with a lot of frustrations.
Few months after the three-man panel that laid down the groundwork for the SEA Games hosting, a war in Marawi City broke out.
A group of ISIS-inspired terrorists raided what was Mindanao’s most prosperous city in an attempt to establish an Islamic state.
With hundreds killed and thousands wounded and the entire Mindanao placed under Martial Law, President Duterte decided to withdraw from the country’s SEA Games hosting.
He had wanted to focus his attention and government resources on the rehabilitation of Marawi City, instead.
“Due to the current situation in Mindanao and the problem in terrorism and atrocities, we regret to inform you that we will no longer push through with the hosting of the biennial event,” Ramirez said in a statement upon receipt of order from the Chief Executive.
“It has been resolved that government resources be focused on the rehabilitation and rebuilding of Mindanao, especially Marawi City.”
The POC was crushed.
The hosting of the Games was approaching in the next two years and pulling out would have been a major blow not only to the country, but to the entire SEA Games Federation Council as well.
Thailand and Indonesia immediately expressed their intention to host. Both of them were ready.
Thailand said it can stage a successful hosting “even if the event would be held tomorrow” while Indonesia stressed that it is building enough facilities for the 18th Asian Games the following year. It would have been easier for the Indonesians to host a smaller event like the SEA Games.
Then, the POC had to make a tough decision. It was either to push through with the hosting without government support or bid goodbye to it.
Cayetano to the rescue
With Thailand and Indonesia again raising the possibility of picking up the hosting, one cabinet member volunteered to save the country’s hosting of the biennial meet.
In a hastily called news conference just two days before the opening of the 29th SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, former Foreign Affairs Sec. Alan Peter Cayetano announced that he was taking the cudgels from Sen. Zubiri and was joining co-chairmen Cojuangco and Ramirez in the newly-formed Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organizing Committee (Phisgoc).
Cayetano said he already clinched the approval of the President and he was to fly to Kuala Lumpur the following week not just to observe the Malaysians’ hosting, but also to receive the SEA Games Federation Council flag during the closing ceremonies signifying the country’s intention to host.
Both the POC and PSC were elated as their officials were relieved.
Under their original plan, Phisgoc was to be in-charge of the overall organization of the Games while the PSC was to take care of the athletes’ training and preparation. The POC was to oversee the participation of various national sports associations.
Although a lot of troubles erupted along the way with Cojuangco being replaced by boxing president Ricky Vargas in a court-ordered election and Vargas being replaced by cycling boss Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino later on, the SEA Games train remained on track.
Suddenly, the SEA Games hosting that was nearly swept by a war, political instability, mudslinging and bickering was close to reality.
Fast forward and the skies of Bulacan light up in celebration and nothing could stop the country from hosting the biggest – and most memorable – edition of this prestigious 11-nation conclave.
The government already spent billions of pesos for the construction of the sprawling Clark New City and several billions of pesos more for the facilities, sports equipment, training of athletes and overall organization of the Games.
This is a massive project – a project that Filipinos couldn’t afford to blow up.
And it all started with Hontiveros raising his hand in a crucial meeting as an act of goodwill, friendship and volunteerism. And the rest followed his track.