By Beting Laygo Dolor, Contributing Editor

The 30th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games will begin this week with the Philippines as host but not without controversy surrounding the expenses incurred by the organizers.

Primary among the questionable expenses is a PHP50 million (about US$1 million) tower topped by a cauldron meant to symbolize the spirit of the games but which Sen. Franklin Drilon dismissed as “a kalderothat we use only once.”

The amount spent on the tower could have been used to build 50 classrooms, Drilon added.

“I am not even talking about overpricing, I’m talking about propriety,” the lawmaker said.

While the cauldron was built in Clark in the sports stadium, “the opening (ceremony) will be held in Bulacan, 90 kilometers away,” he said.

Speaker Alan Pete Cayetano, who serves as chairman of the organizing committee, said the Philippine cauldron was a “work of art” and thus worth the amount spent in its construction. The local version is also cheaper than a similar cauldron erected in Singapore when it hosted the event, he added.

After learning that the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) had allotted PHP12 billion for the event, of which PHP9.5 billion was spent to develop a sports complex at New Clark City in Capas, Tarlac, Drilon questioned what he said was a needless expense.

“We could have spent PHP1.2 billion to refurbish the Rizal Memorial Coliseum” instead, the head of the Senate minority said during budget hearings for the PSC.

To make matters worse, the Philippines had to borrow PHP11 billion from a Malaysian company to host the SEA Games, said Drilon. That loan is payable in five years.

While saying that he was not against the Philippines’ hosting of the Southeast Asian version of the Olympics, he said expenses should have been reduced to the minimum, considering that the country has a PHP624 billion budgetary deficit this year.

Some of the country’s athletes have also taken issue with the PSC and what they say is a lack of financial support.

The most notable athlete to complain is Olympic Games silver medalist weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, who said she had not been given the help promised by the PSC. Diaz is considered the country’s best bet to win a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

She is ranked third in the world in her weight class. With government support proving insufficient, Diaz has instead been supported by the MVP Sports Foundation and Phoenix Petroleum.

Previous SEA Games medalist James delos Santos also complained that after spending his own funds to train, he was bumped off the national karate team.

Delos Santos said when he went to Manila to train, national sports association Karate Pilipinas Inc. “evaluated” him out of the national team. This, despite his being the reigning six-time gold medalist in the Philippine National Games.

It was also learned that the civilian volunteers who will be attending to the needs of the visiting athletes will not be getting any kind of allowance for their services. They will have to provide their own transport to and from the venues and spend for their own meals.

Besides the PSC, the Philippine Olympic Committee has been the object of numerous complaints in the past, to the detriment of Philippine sports in general.

It has been noted that the Philippines is one of a few countries which send more coaches, executives and support staff than actual athletes to the Olympic Games, held every four years.

For this year’s SEA Games, the country will be represented by 1,094 athletes plus 753 coaches.

The last time the Philippines hosted the SEA Games was in 2005. With then First Gentleman Mike Arroyo serving as head of the organizing committee, the Philippines pulled an unexpected surprise by winning the general championship.

The Philippines sixth place finish in the last SEA Games in Malaysia was its worst in the last 18 years.