Cover PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - NOVEMBER 01: Mikaela Cojuangco Jaworski speaks to delegates at the ANOC Executive Council Meeting during the XXII ANOC General Assembly on November 1, 2017 in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images for ANOC)

We chatted with Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski about what it means for the Philippines to have its first-ever Olympic gold and what she hopes to accomplish as the first Asian woman elected to the executive board of the International Olympic Committee.

Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski may be remembered by the public for her movies, musicals, and television appearances during her younger years, but we all know her best for her heart of gold and her dedication to helping the underprivileged and the environment. This multi-faceted lady served for the Pasig Rehabilitation Commission, World Wide Fund for Nature Philippines, Gawad Kalinga Foundation for Nation Building, and the AnakTV Foundation for Child Sensitive Television, among many others.

But who could ever forget her winning moments at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, South Korea where she was able to take home gold and silver medals for the country? Her sports career as an equestrienne put the country on the map of the said discipline and eventually, she joined the Australian Youth Olympic Festival in Sydney Australia as chef d'equipe and coach of the Philippine Jumping Team, and team manager of the team jumping competition at the 2011 South East Asian (SEA) Games in Jakarta, Indonesia.

With her clinching the gold medal at the 2005 SEA Games—where she was also our one of our flag bearers—and later in 2011 earning the champion title of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) World Dressage Challenge in Elementary for FEI Zone 9, the future of her athletic career seemed bright for her.

However, God had a different plan.

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I truly believe that sports is a wonderful tool for personality development and nation-building.
Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski

Fast forward to 2020, Mikee was elected to the executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), making history as the first Asian woman to hold such a seat on the world's most prestigious corporation in the field of sports. With her tenure as founding member and now president of the Equestrian Association of the Philippines, to name one from her roster of offices held in the sports administration, and as a member of the IOC since 2013, she was able to secure enough votes at the election that was done virtually in July of that year.

Mikee said to Tatler that she really veered away from interviews at the time because she wanted the public to focus on our Filipino Olympians instead, particularly Hidilyn Diaz. Moreover, she thought that the people should have a better understanding of the structure behind the governing bodies in the world of sports to come up with more educated opinions, especially that the country's support in sports has been one of the hottest topics over social media today.

The Olympic Movement, as Mikee explained, is the overall work of three main constituents: the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Sports Federations (IFs), and the National Olympic Committees (NOCs). The pinnacle of all their efforts is the Olympic games, which brings together the world's athletes to play fairly and exhibit their talents and skills.

"The Philippine Sports Commission is a government agency, while the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC, which is our NOC) is a private organisation, and the IOC is the head of the Olympic Movement and owner of the Olympic games," she explained. "The IOC recognises countries through their NOCs, which is the gateway for Filipino athletes to be able to represent the country in international competitions under the auspices of the IOC. The IOC also recognise international federations, which local counterparts are collectively known as national sports associations (NSAs)," she continued. "This is how we operate, and I have not seen in any part of the world a country that has been successful without the cooperation and contributions of the government, the Olympic committees, the private sector, and the athletes themselves, especially through NSAs," she said.

"We do want sports to get more attention, we want sports to become more of interest to the general public," Mikee agreed. "But we do not just want them to form better opinions but to practice sports themselves," she stated.

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Delving more on the importance of sports in our lifestyles, Mikee shared that "there are laws in other countries that require citizens to do sports at least 30 minutes a day because the governments end up spending less on healthcare."

With the country's spotlight now on our four Olympic medalists fresh from Tokyo, as well as to numerous other athletes geared up for their own competitions in the succeeding months and years, Mikee has high hopes that the flame would keep on burning. "I truly believe that sports is a wonderful tool for personality development and nation-building," Mikee said.

"We can develop leaders that display the traits of respect, fair play, and friendship... that know-how to value hardwork in the different processes. These are what sports teaches us: 'excellence', in other words," she said, being hopeful and optimistic. "But you know the government has its own issues, its own limitations, as does the private sector," she digressed for a moment then came back with more hope in her heart. "But as we talk about limitations, we forget to talk about strengths and I feel that we have to focus on what the strengths are and what every sector of the country can contribute. Instead of saying 'we can't do this because', say instead 'what can we do?', and we build from that."

Read More: Athletes And Mental Health—5 Insights From A Sports Psychologist

We have to give our athletes the best opportunities to be the best that they can be. What I pray for is that sports would be given more attention and more priority as a tool for nation-building. Not just athletes to be given honour, or for us to be proud of them, only if they win medals and only if it’s gold.
Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski

How do you feel about being the first Asian woman to be elected in the International Olympic Committee? 

There have been lots of Asian men and women in the IOC but first time for someone to be on the Executive Board. Well, of course, I’m proud, but it also brings a lot of responsibilities because, in effect, as we say that I’m the first Asian woman, it means that I [should] also reflect what an Asian woman is. Every time I am in a position, I can’t really think of it as something that speaks of me to get there but something that adds to the responsibility to be able to show that we deserve a place there.

Given that today, equal at least, or even better opportunities are being clamoured to be given to people of colour and other backgrounds. What’s your comment on this?

Yes, I agree. I really do believe that I, personally, have benefitted from this clamour and this is not new. There are many women, my colleagues from the IOC included, who have felt discrimination their whole lives because of their sex or colour. I’m so blessed because the IOC is an organisation that is very deliberate in having proper representation. I’m very grateful to the women who have come before me and did the work that allowed me these opened doors and pathways, which did not necessarily exist for them before.

You were a sight to behold at the opening ceremonies and made us truly proud. How did the other athletes and attendees receive you?

[Laughs] Thank you. I asked the POC if they had a spare flag that they could lend me because you know what opening ceremonies are like. As an athlete, you walk onto the field, look around, and try to say ‘where are the ones who are trying to support me?’ I really wanted to show our athletes, our delegation, that there’s someone sitting up there in the stands and cheering for them. Tamang tama (rightfully so), their flag was quite large. I didn’t want to call any attention to myself, I just wanted the Philippine flag to be seen and I did! That’s all I did [laughs].

All I’m hoping is that they saw the flag up there and that it gave them some inspiration and motivation, to know that our flag is being flown.

The Olympics is regarded as the most prestigious athletic event in the world but according to other media and the general public, not much attention or support is being given by the government. What’s your take on this sensitive issue?

For a lot of athletes, the Olympics is the pinnacle of sporting achievements. But to train for it, you’re not just looking at the Olympic games per se but you’re looking at every competition: every regional, continental, or world championship that the international federation makes available for us to compete in.

As an athlete, you need to live your life with the mentality of an athlete; with the discipline—taking care of your body, mind, and soul with excellence; with the drive to display your best; and hope that your best is good enough to earn you a medal. So it’s not just for the Olympics. It’s to support a way of life that is inspired by love of God, love of country, and for many of our athletes who don’t come from backgrounds of privilege, it’s love for their family.

When you talk about government support, it’s a difficult topic because I think that if we want to be competitive, we have to keep up with the different methods, the different advancements in training, in technology, in the way that things are done, the best practices that are being done all over the world. We have to know what they are. We have to be able to apply it to our own situations. Sports is very scientific.

When you have athletes who are so determined to be successful, everyone needs to have the heart to do it. There is no winner in this world na wala ring puso (who don't have the heart). We have to give our athletes the best opportunities to be the best that they can be. We have to be exposed to the best. You can’t just say, ‘oh you look great. You perform great. Now go and win’. It doesn’t work that way. So we have to be deliberate.

When we spend money, we have to plan how to do it. If our resources are limited, we have to create a program that allows us to maximise those resources. And we can’t just spend aimlessly. I don’t really believe that we don’t have the resources. There has to be cooperation among the government, the POC, and those that are in charge of the training of the athletes. It has to be planned, deliberate, cooperative... it’s really teamwork. It takes a village for an athlete to succeed.

What I pray for is that sports would be given more attention and more priority as a tool for nation-building. Not just athletes to be given honour, or for us to be proud of them, only if they win medals and only if it’s gold.

Read More: Hidilyn's Gold Win—Why It Means More To Filipinos Than You'd Think

It takes a village for an athlete to succeed.
Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski

Let’s talk about Hidilyn Diaz. How did you feel when she won, what’s your observation on how she prepared for this (her fourth attempt!) and why she deserves this much attention and praise besides being our first official Gold medalist at the Olympics.

She has dedicated her life to become a weightlifter. And everything that I said in the previous question, I think, Haidie displays this process, this progression, considering her performance from her first Olympics to this last one. All the more reason she deserves the attention and praise because of the way that she endured and persevered. Most especially because when she won, she never claimed any of the credit for herself and herself alone. She lifted it up to God, she offered it to the country, and she made sure that the people around her and those who supported her are also given the credit for it.

How did I feel? Wow! I was sitting in the front row watching because I was really scheduled to be the one who will give the medals for that event. And you know, I was really cheering for Haidie but I couldn’t cheer out loud because I was sitting alongside some of the officials, and of course, other competitors could see me and I didn’t want to be rude to them. But I was praying every second.

I had complete faith in Hidilyn that she was ready because she looked so ready. She was nervous but she was able to control it, she knew what she was doing, and really came out there acting like a veteran of the sport. Her physique was different this time. And I’ve never seen her like this before in all of the times that I’ve watched her. 

The other people that were around me when she won, they were crying because I told them that they just didn’t understand what this gold medal means for our country, especially at a time like this.

The other people that were around me when [Hidilyn] won... they were crying. I told them that they just didn’t understand what this gold medal means for our country, especially at a time like this.
Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski

See Also: Hidilyn's Gold: Why It Means More To Filipinos Than You'd Think

After the 2018 Asian Games, you spoke highly of our female athletes particularly our gold medalists. You said in another interview, in passing, that people find this “reverse discrimination” because Filipinas have been at the top of their game ever since. Can you elaborate on this?

I always say that we are very blessed to be Filipinos because men are taught that they are supposed to respect their mothers, sisters—women, in general. I have taught this to my sons: Filipino men are taught to open doors and carry things for women, show respect to us. It’s not being done out of disrespect because they look at us as inferior to them but because they are looking for ways to serve women. 

But I think that women’s achievements should be celebrated as they are. When this is celebrated, I don’t think it should be viewed as something out of the ordinary. And that is why it is reverse discrimination because it should just be a celebration for all and not viewed as ‘because women’, ‘because men’. And I know that a lot of people still do experience that kind of discrimination. The more we just focus on what needs to be done and being good at what we do, the less these other matters are raised and instead, the achievements become highlighted.

See more: Filipina "It" Girls: 5 Empowered Young Women To Know This 2021

What do you hope to achieve for the Olympics in your four-year term as part of the board? Are there any issues you wanted to address or policies that needed fixing?

The IOC is a dynamic organisation. We don’t hesitate to make changes even through the Olympic Charter. When we see that these are necessary steps to maintain good governance and to be able to serve the Olympic Movement as best as we can, we do it. There are many issues that come up in sports and many changes that need to be done. [An example of this is having the medals made from e-waste at the recent Tokyo Olympics]. I think the important part is for us to be able to stay ahead of what issues can come up and to be able to anticipate and react to them. 

I didn’t go to the Executive Board with an aim of changing things. The president of the IOC [Thomas Bach] is quite a visionary and I think, the honour is to be able to pursue the vision of the Olympic Movement, and of those that lead it in a faster and better way. It’s not about 'change' for me, but about progress... continued progress.

I’m really hoping that the great, amazing, best-ever performance of the Filipino athletes in this 2020 Olympics is something that will be appreciated, remembered, and applied in the lives of the Filipinos; as we move on to other very serious and individually-affecting issues like COVID-19, the Delta variant, and the favourite pastime of the Filipino people which is politics, and the elections that are happening next year.

See also: Tokyo Olympics 2020: What The Athletes Eat In The Olympic Village
 

 

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