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Yordenis Ugás v Manny Pacquiao - News Conference Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

Manny Pacquiao and the precarious power of sports diplomacy

Karim Zidan delves into Manny Pacquiao’s decision to run for president and how his political career is a case study in the perils of sports diplomacy.

“I am a fighter, and I will always be a fighter inside and outside the ring.”

These were the words spoken by Manny Pacquiao as he accepted the presidential nomination of his political allies during Sunday’s national assembly of the faction he leads in the ruling PDP-Laban party. “We need government to serve our people with integrity, compassion and transparency,” the senator added.

Pacquiao’s decision came shortly after another faction of the PDP-Laban party nominated President Rodrigo Duterte to be its vice presidential candidate, and Duterte’s former aide, Sen. Bong Go, as its presidential nominee. Duterte, who is banned by the constitution from seeking a second six-year term, accepted the nomination, while Go claimed he isn’t going to run for president.

During his tenure as senator, Pacquiao allied himself with Duterte and showed support for the president’s bloody war on drugs that led to the extrajudicial slaughtering of more than 12,000 Filipinos. However, the boxing great has since distanced himself from Duterte, taking aim instead at Duterte’s “lacking” response to China over its perceived aggression in the South China Sea.

Pacquiao also targeted government corruption in the Philippines, claiming that more than 10 billion pesos ($204 million) in pandemic aid intended for poor families was unaccounted for. His statement came in the wake of the Senate opening an investigation into alleged price manipulation of pandemic-related equipment purchased as part of the government’s COVID-19 response programme. The senator will continue to make anti-corruption a cornerstone of his campaign.

“Your time is up!” Pacquiao warned corrupt officials during his speech.

While Pacquiao is popular in the Philippines due to his legendary boxing career, his path to the presidency will be a difficult one, as he continues to trail the front-runners in opinion polls that have consistently favored Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio. Nevertheless, Pacquiao’s career trajectory is a case study in the use of sports to influence political relations.

Born in 1978 as the fourth child in a family of six siblings, Pacquiao grew up in immense poverty – poverty so severe that his father was forced to kill their pet dog for food. At age 12, he dropped out of school to pursue a career in boxing and moved in with his uncle, Sardo Mejia, in a one-storey home in the southern Philippine city of General Santos. Mejia, who had no formal training as a fighter, would go on to become the future star’s first boxing trainer.

By the time he turned 15, Pacquiao was regarded as one of the best junior boxers in the country, and frequently competed in a public park in General Santos. However, the teenager sought greater success, so he stowed away on a ship bound for Manila. When he arrived in the city, he slept on cardboard boxes, sold doughnuts, and cleaned boxing gyms in order to survive, all while continuing to improve his skills and rise through the ranks. The following year, Pacquiao turned professional and made his official debut as a junior flyweight in 1995. Three years later, he won the World Boxing Council (WBC) flyweight title, his first major championship.

Over the course of an illustrious 25-year career, Pacquiao dominated his competition, rising to become an eight-weight world champion, a lineal champion in five separate weight classes, and the only boxer to hold world championships across four decades. Having dominated the boxing world, Pacquiao set his sights on his next big challenge.

Yordenis Ugás v Manny Pacquiao Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In 2010, Pacquiao pivoted to politics and was elected to the 15th Congress of the Philippines. He completed his term and was re-elected again in 2013. Two years later, Pacquiao announced his intent to run for senator. He ran under the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) and was elected in May 2016. Shortly thereafter, he became aligned with the Duterte government, and switched to the newly-elected president’s PDP-Laban party.

During his first year as senator, Pacquiao condemned same-sex marriage, stating that “if we approve male on male, female on female [marriage], then man is worse than animal.” Hiding behind the vernacular of the Bible, the boxer added that “God only expects man and women to be together and to be legally married.”

Pacquiao was later criticized by local celebrities and members of the LGBTQ+ community around the world. Nike ended its longstanding partnership with Pacquiao over his comments. And while Pacquiao eventually apologized, he clarified that he was still against same-sex marriage. Later that same year, Pacquiao showed support for capital punishment, once again relying on his religiosity as the basis for his argument.

Pacquiao’s legacy is also marred by his previous ties to Duterte—a populist leader who rose to power by orchestrating a so-called war on drugs in his homeland. He oversaw the extrajudicial killing of thousands of Filipinos since becoming president in 2016. And yet, despite Pacquiao support for Duterte, as well as his stances on the death penalty, and the LGBTQ+ community, the boxer remains a significant political figure in his homeland. This underscores the precarious power of sports diplomacy.

In some cases, sports and their athletes have the ability to transcend cultural and political barriers. Conversely, sports can also be weaponized as soft power strategies to spread propaganda or to whitewash or distract from human rights abuses. In Duterte’s case, his association with Pacquiao—one of the most beloved figures in the Philippines due to his boxing legacy—helped bolster the president’s popularity.

Beyond the Pacquiao-Duterte case study, there are plenty of examples where boxers were utilized by governments to bolster their image. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party promoted legendary German boxer Max Schmeling as proof of German superiority in their racially-charged propaganda, especially following his victory over African-American boxing star Joe Louis in their first fight. Interestingly, Schmeling was not a member of the Nazi Party and repeatedly denied his government’s claims of racial superiority: “I am a fighter, not a politician. I am no superman in any way,” he once said.

Despite Schmeling’s distaste for Nazi politics, he continued to be exploited by the regime. Schmeling’s wife and mother were kept from traveling with him to avoid the chances of defection, while a Nazi publicist followed Schmeling around to ensure his compliance. Ahead of Schmeling’s second fight against Louis, Hitler lifted the nationwide 3:00 a.m. curfew so that cafés and bars could carry the broadcast for their patrons, thus emphasizing the significance of the bout for his propaganda campaign.

There are also several examples involving the great Muhammad Ali. In 1974, Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of Zaire (later remained the Democratic Republic of Congo) from 1965 until 1997, convinced promoter Don King to host the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, believing that the publicity from such a high-profile showcase would benefit his regime. Mobutu presided over a period of widespread human rights abuses, including political imprisonment, forced disappearances, sexual assault, and torture. He allowed his military to plunder with impunity, which helped him maintain power for more than 30 years. His tenure and bloody record make him one of the most destructive dictators in African history.

Muhammad Ali Visiting President Mobuto
Muhammad Ali Visiting President Mobuto

While it was the first time that Ali’s paycheque was signed by a foreign dictator, it certainly wasn’t the last. In 1975, the Philippines’ dictator Ferdinand Marcos offered Ali and Frazier millions to take part in the “Thrilla in Manila” bout, which served to bolster Marcos’s regime, which was infamous for instituting martial law and for widespread corruption and oppression.

In 2019, Saudi Arabia paid a reported $100 million to host the Andy Ruiz vs. Anthony Joshua heavyweight boxing rematch, the biggest boxing fight that year. The event was Saudi’s attempt to salvage the country’s damaged reputation following the assassination of journalist Jamal Khasshogi. The kingdom has since continued to use sportswashing tactics as a form of public relations in an effort to reposition itself as an elite platform for world-class sports events.

While Duterte is no longer able to utilize Pacquiao’s popularity for his own political agenda, the damage has already been done. And though Duterte will not be able to run for another term in office, there is little stopping Pacquiao or his faction of the PDP-Laban party from benefiting from the boxer’s success as it moves forward with its own political programme.

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