Rogue | July 2014
The Sports of Kings
by Manuel L. Quezon III
An exploration of how, on their days off, the most powerful men of public
office– and sometimes, of the cloth– play a different kind of hardball
PLAYTIME for the powerful is both means and method for power plays. If War, as the German strategist Clausewitz famously expressed, is the “continuation of politics by other means,” then sport and other pastimes is an extension of the political life of the boardroom or executive office. Sport permits manly exhibition or feminine grace; it provides spectacle and opportunities for social interaction; it imbues leisure with purpose, whether moral or psychological.
No surprise then that traditionally, horses and playing cards have all the hallmarks of princely relaxation: horses are not only expensive, requiring land, staff, and leisure –they also require skill and a certain dash if one rides (if not, it requires wealth, hence horseracing as “the sport of kings”); cards can either connote skill or simply a carefree attitude towards debt (the ultimate in aristocratic attitudes). The pinnacle of American colonial playgrounds was the Manila Polo Club in Pasay, cleverly set up by William Cameron Forbes in the 1920s, and who, as late as the 1950s would parlay his investment into a profitable transfer to Makati. The Anglophile Forbes established the Polo Club as part of the network of Anglo-Saxon polo grounds dotting the British Empire, with vestiges that remain to this day, such as when the Sultan of Brunei comes to Manila to play polo.
Anglomania was not just a WASPish affectation; it held sway in a significant sway among Spanish-Filipino commercial families, too: the Elizalde brothers in the 1930s famously constituted their own team, and sports met politics when they led a walkout from the Polo Club over the blackballing of a prospective Filipino member, and established a rival polo club, Los Tamaraos, in Parañaque (the field exists to this day, used for dressage). However, horsemanship, while it appealed to some presidents (Quezon, Roxas and Magsaysay, specifically), it didn’t catch on in wider political, commercial or even military circles.
Neither did hunting, much as Americans thrilled to carabao hunt at the turn of the 20th Century, and shooting snipe had its adherents in Wack-Wack and the Candaba Swamps; the Tamarao caught the hunting of colonial hunters for a time but by the 1930s already had to be conserved.
It may be that violence was simply too much part and parcel of upper class life to make the slaughter of animals much fun. This is in contrast to the European, aristocratic passion for killing things that shifted from people to the fauna of fields and forests in the long period of peace between Waterloo and World War I (with the added bonus of being relatively risk-free, unlike traditional hunting, whether in real life or in fiction: think Robert Baratheon). There it turned into an absolute mania. In 1904 a monument was put up in Schorfheide (in today’s Brandenburg, Germany) to commemorate the “100th noble deer that our Gracious Imperial Majesty Wilhelm II” slaughtered in the forest; he would go on to the massacre of 1,100 pheasants over two days in 1913. When he lost his empire, the ex-Kaiser spent the remainder of his life systematically chopping down trees in his estate-in-exile in Holland: so much so that 73 years after his death, the place is still recovering.
There are exceptions to hunting being more dangerous to animals, of course, such as when former Vice President Dick Cheney –slightly—wounding Harry Whittington during a duck hunt in 2006; and there can be other types of hunting accidents, such as bad timing. The Spanish monarchy is still reeling from the revelation that at the height his nation’s economic woes, King Juan Carlos went off to shoot elephants in Africa.
The high and mighty did go great guns for golf, however, and up to a generation ago it was considered the presidential sport: the late 1930s often found the trio of Manuel L. Quezon, Vicente Madrigal, and Archbishop O’Dougherty at the links (the Archbishop of Manila’s residence, Villa San Miguel, is situated in Mandaluyong precisely because it was close to Wack Wack): their games, it seems, were remarkable not for their handicaps but the manner in which the president swore, vigorously, and loudly, in three languages throughout, amazing all and sundry as far as the archbishop’s tolerance of expletives was concerned. Manuel Roxas, with Laurel’s cautionary example in mind, started the golf course in Malacañan Park; while Ferdinand E. Marcos expanded it, with subsequent improvements by Fidel V. Ramos: all these names suggesting –with the exception of the Church—the professions –politics, business, and the military– for whom golf remains a cultural fixture.
But golf, too, can be dangerous –and not because of the game itself. During the Japanese Occupation, guerrillas mounted a daring operation and nearly killed Jose P. Laurel as he played in Wack-Wack. Impending martial law led frantic oppositionists to seriously plan dive-bombing Ferdinand E. Marcos as he played golf (the plan never, shall we say, really took off). Marcos’ downfall, in turn, was signaled by stories of his golfing prowess being replaced with tittering about how he cheated at the game –always a sign that a leader’s days are numbered. And just as bad publicity can hound a hunt, it can present a PR trap in golf, as Mar Roxas recently found out. Though in the final analysis the real blowback After all, like Vegas, the expectation is that what happens in the club, stays in the club. Woe to those who break this rule; among gentlemen it might well turn out that Manila Golf, with its iron-clad code of silence, will gain an additional prestige premium compared to Wack-Wack.
Fallen by the wayside, too, in contrast to the renaissance it’s enjoying in film and television, is poker as a political pastime of choice. The ability to bluff; the knack for detecting the “tell” of someone else at the table; the quick calculations and breathtaking bluffs: to this day the language of poker colors descriptions of politics, and politicians (businessmen, for some reason, only seem to play poker in college before taking up golf instead, unless they become addicted to high stakes in general in the casino). But its heyday among politicians seems to straddle the Quezon and Roxas administrations (and even Quezon, by the late 1930s had dropped poker for the more complicated, but respectable, Bridge, a game that seems to be virtually extinct).
Other presidents either had no sports to speak of –Osmeña was considered, in his time, as avid a ballroom dancer as Quezon—or were chess players (like Carlos P. Garcia), billiards players (Garcia, Diosdado Macapagal, and from time to time, President Benigno S. Aquino III), swimmers (Quirino, Marcos, Ramos) if they weren’t golfers (which Marcos and Ramos were). A curious note is that only two seem to have liked mahjong: Cory Aquino and Joseph Ejercito Estrada. Though whether either was as enthusiastic about the game as their critics insisted at the time, seems less certain. By their games shall ye judge them.
Fast forward to the the most recent issue of Time magazine, where an unnamed “former Obama diplomat” suggests the West may be trying to gauge Vladimir Putin according to an irrelevant standard. “We keep trying to see him as a chess player,” the diplomat says of Putin, “But it is important to remember he is a judo master. And judo masters are famous for standing on the mat for an hour, waiting for a one-second opportunity.” By way of The Huffington Post (quoting, in turn, from Putin’s own website) we know that Putin himself sees power and politics in terms of his favorite martial art: “Judo teaches self-control, the ability to feel the moment, to see the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, to strive for the best results… I am sure you will agree that these are essential abilities and skills for any politician.” Or for any leader, for that matter, whether by Divine Right, through the consent of the governed, or by means of corporate maneuvering.
Whether then or now, presidents, potentates or kings, here’s the thing about sport: the widespread belief that what one plays, and how one plays, reveals something profound about the person. It also reveals something about we, the people, as we play audience to the mighty: tolerant of bending the rules, which is the only way I can explain the adulation Jaworski enjoyed in his heyday, with his hot-headed playing; mocking of those who break the rules just because they can (again, countless stories of Marcos in the 1980s); admiring when the player happens to actually demonstrate proficiency, and affectionate when exposure of a flaw is taken in good grace. And when prizes are shared, admiration turns to outright adulation –though as Vladimir Putin and his judo suggests, Machievilli applies to sport as much as politics. It is better to be feared, than loved.