I was a young and struggling sportswriter wannabe in the late 1970s when I first came across the brash and brutally frank Mike Keon and his Gintong Alay program.
I even had the opportunity to go up to Baguio, the training hub for the program that started with track events and eventually became a national sports training program that reaped huge success at that time. And over time, the relationship has remained.
When Keon first came back after the EDSA revolution, I was the first to interview him and his assessment then was that because of his family name, it would be difficult to get back into sports, though he did eventually, becoming the national sports training director for our 2005 SEA Games athletes, who won the overall championship.
He also cemented his reputation in sports when he helped Ilocos Norte to 11 consecutive overall titles from 2000 to 2010 in the Ilocos Region Athletic Association.
When he became Laoag City Mayor in 2019, he planned to do the same for the city, though being a transitional mayor then after breaking the Farinas dynasty, he had a lot of work to do and sports had to take a secondary role.
This was further aggravated by the coming of COVID-19, which he said practically stopped all sports to avoid mass gatherings, allowing only jogging, walking and running for the city residents.
But for Mike, it was a very big factor in the city’s successful fight against the pandemic. He even initiated a “no movement day for people and vehicles every Sunday”. In the end, from a high of 1,300 virus cases, it is now less than 200 cases.
Success though is not something unfamiliar for the 67-year-old Mike, who will be running for a second term, and he did not hold back when he expressed his thoughts on Philippine sports.
For one, he believes we do not need Fil-foreign athletes to be successful, citing the big success of his wards then, like Lydia de Vega, Isidro del Prado and Hector Begeo in both local and international competitions.
Further proof he said was the fact that some of the records set by these athletes then, still stands up to now, and that is certainly something, considering the presence of imported talents presently.
What he decried was the fact that in his favorite event, running, the Philippines used to dominate short- to long-distance events at the South East Asian level, even in Asian Games, but not true anymore now.
Add, too, that in recent years, the training camp in Baguio has not been fully utilized for runners, when high altitude training is one of the best for runners.
Politics in sports is a very big factor for Mike, and in his own words, sports here is riddled with politics and the principle followed is whom you know and not what you know.
During his time, he was head of Gintong Alay, president of the Philippine Amateur Track and Field Association and even the Philippine Olympic Committee, all of which enabled him to oversee sports here in an authoritarian way. After all, he was the nephew of the President.
Sports he says has better chances of succeeding under an authoritarian government, citing the likes of Russia before and China at present.
But even as he accepts that this won’t happen, he still offered practical solutions to address the problems in Philippine sports.
The basic need is to set up a good sports foundation program, then build on it. He cited the needs to go with this, the program should have specific goals and training sites for the different disciplines, coaches with long-term tenures, regular international exposure and competition and the right equipment for the athletes, and be consistent about it.
But for him, the most important need for such a program is that nobody meddles in it. The program should continue no matter, who the people are elected or appointed. No disruption, whatsoever.
These are practical words from someone who speaks from experience and has succeeded. But the question is, who is listening?