May 23, 2024

GUTS AND GLORY | The dangerous path in SEA Games naturalization

GUTS AND GLORY | The dangerous path in SEA Games naturalization
FIBA/Ariya Kurniawan | Art by Royce Nicdao

“Beat them. Beat them for Southeast Asia.”

This was what a non-Filipino basketball team official told me moments before the gold medal match between the Philippines and Cambodia.

The Southeast Asian Games are supposed to promote camaraderie between countries in the region through sports. Although there were undoubtedly many heartwarming stories of sportsmanship, the number of naturalized players employed by host team Cambodia was a hot topic.

Cambodia had about 10 naturalized players in basketball, 13 cricket players from India and Pakistan, a French triathlete, a Korean cue artist, Uzbek boxers, and Japanese, Chinese, and Ukrainian judokas.

As a result, Cambodia jumped from a lowly nine golds in the 2021 Hanoi SEA Games to finishing at the fourth spot with 81 gold medals in total.

Usually, this is not a big issue as hosts can pad their medal totals with sports they can dominate. The Philippines did it in 2019 as we banked on 14 golds from arnis, 10 from dancesport, and six in obstacle racing.

Cambodia had kun khmer and kun bokator and those two sports alone were enough to give them 22 gold medals already.

However, the three golds in cricket, the two in endurance sports, one in boxing, and one in men’s 3x3 all leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

Mass naturalization of athletes will surely lead to more problems down the road and if this does not turn out to be one-off for Cambodia.

Take basketball as an example. Cambodia won the 3x3 men’s gold with three naturalized players and one local. Their lone local did not play a single second in the game even if he was fit to play. These same naturalized players also saw action in 5-on-5 and it was enough for a silver medal finish.

While I’m sure that Cambodian fans enjoyed watching these teams, what will it really do for their program?

The national basketball teams are supposed to be a result of the strength of the basketball federation and the overall culture in the country. The Philippines has always been a regional powerhouse but, as of late, basketball is growing exponentially in Indonesia and Thailand and it has resulted to better outings in the SEA Games for their teams as well, including a SEA Games gold for the former.

The complaints from all basketball teams about the venue of the games was a reflection of just how immature the program is. From the taraflex floor, the slippery blue lining around the court, the scorching-hot venue, the fact that some teams got air-conditioned dugouts while others got open air rooms, and the lack of a decent practice venue all point to the fact that the decision makers either did not understand what it took to host basketball competitions or, worse, did not care about it. The priority was to spend money to try and win the gold when some of it could have been allocated to enhancing the players’ experience.

Even the TV production was way below par. The transitions were dizzying, the angles were awkward, there were no replays or slow-mos, and there were honey shots even when the ball was live.

Our group from Cignal and One Sports even tried to offer the services of one of our FIBA-trained directors to help out but this suggestion was not accepted.

Their basketball commentator was plucked from football so he, to no fault of his own, shouted “GOAL!!” after every free throw made, like it was a converted penalty kick.

Cambodia tried to jump the line but now the question is where do they go from there. The next host of the SEA Games is Thailand and their basketball team did not have a naturalized player in their lineup as they banked on a handful of heritage players for a bronze medal finish. It’s unlikely that they will allow what Cambodia did so what will happen to their medal hopes in 2025?

Instead of allowing some of their locals to see more action, enjoy their homecourt advantage, and get a chance to develop their game, they were kept of the bench as reduced to mere cheerleaders. The chance to help their grassroots develop is also stunted when lion’s share of the federation’s budget is allotted to sustaining naturalized athletes.

It also unfairly tilts the balance to countries who have an easier naturalization program. Singapore, for example, is exceptionally difficult so they will continue to be at a disadvantage if mass naturalization becomes the norm.

In the 18 days I spent in Phnom Penh, it was easy to see that Cambodians are an amazing people. Even with what they went through in their recent history, they’ve shown resilience and a collective kind-heartedness to show they will not be defined with what happened before.

And they deserve better than just a one-time act in basketball to entertain them for a while. What they deserve is a true program that would hopefully turn them into contenders in the future.