One month after SEA Games, what's next for the New Clark City sports hub?

Jan 23, 2020
PHOTO: Echo Antonio

On December 11 last year, the Athletics Stadium at New Clark City was packed, with a crowd said to number around 15,000.

From one of the northern access gates, thousands of athletes streamed in — runners, swimmers, skateboarders, footballers, shooters, archers, karatekas, taekwondo jins, and more — waving flags as they marched across the track. Later, cheers turned to beats when the Black Eyed Peas took to the stage and turned the arena’s central grass pitch into one massive dance floor.

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The games had begun, almost 90 kilometers away, in Bulacan’s Philippine Arena, and they would end here, inside a stadium that had suddenly appeared like a mirage in the hinterlands of Tarlac.

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But that was more than a month ago. Today, you can stand on any vantage point on the supple track, and see 20,000 empty seats in orange and gray looming above you. From above the spot where the athletes entered, you can gaze at the rolling green fields stretching to the horizon, with the shadowy obelisk of Capas’ Death March memorial visible above the trees.

Inside this empty stadium, it’s fair to ask: “What next?”

Starting lines

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Up to now, it still amazes Vince Dizon that the SEA Games facilities at New Clark City are even there at all.

“Between you and me, it’s a miracle,” the president of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) confided to SPIN Life.

The decision to host the SEA Games came in August 2017. Sports arenas were never a part of the plan; a promotional video from 2016 for New Clark City, then known as Clark Green City, only mentioned a “central park”, “innovation district”, “quaint food and retail shops”, but definitely nothing about stadiums or arenas.

The hosting announcement gave the government agency a little more than two years to conjure, almost from thin air, an entire sports complex.

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Right off the bat, the challenges were formidable. Dizon is upfront: “One good thing about how this was done [was that] a government entity like BCDA was true enough to say that wala kaming expertise rito. We had no idea how to build those facilities.”

The Asian Development Bank, the BCDA’s transactions advisor, stressed the need to find partners and build facilities that would meet international standards — a stringent process Dizon described as “millimeter-millimeter ang mga sukat.” The city’s developer, MTD Philippines, which had originally just submitted a proposal to construct a government center, took on the monumental task.

Technically, New Clark City would only host two sports: aquatics and athletics, which, on paper, all sounds very doable. But those two alone meant a total of 92 events, from water polo to heptathlon. Sports like basketball might have been the bigger draw, but as Dizon explained, “Even in the Olympics, aquatics and athletics are really the centerpiece games.”

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In addition, New Clark City had to become the home base for athletes whose events were held in nearby Clark or Mabalacat or Angeles: petanque, dance sports, baseball, among many others.

The sports hub was completed with time to spare. There was the Athletics Stadium, its sweeping, circular roofline intentionally reminiscent of nearby Mt. Pinatubo. There was the Aquatics Center, with a 10-lane competition pool, a diving pool, a warm-up pool, a seating capacity of 2,000, and an intricate zigzagging roof structure like the interlocking prows of boats. And then there was the Athlete’s Village, which could house 1,800 athletes in total, living three to a room in accommodations that wouldn’t look out of place in a boutique hotel.

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In September of 2019, three months before the start of the games, SEA Games technical delegate Valso Cuddikotta said of the stadium: “They can conduct any event of the highest magnitude in [New] Clark City […] It has come out very well, equipment-wise.”

By then, national athletes were already training in the facilities, including marathon’s surprising new women’s champ.

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“Christine Hallasgo lived in the Athlete’s Village from September up to the SEA Games,” narrated Dizon. “In three months, she was running around the area of New Clark City. When she came here, she was an unknown. [The country’s] top marathoner was Mary Joy Tabal, from Cebu. But Mary Joy trained in the US for a couple of months before the games. Christine Hallasgo trained here.”

When Dizon asked her how she had beaten Tabal with a jaw-dropping two minute lead, Hallasgo told him, “Sir, nasanay kasi ako sa init.”

Taming the elephants

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Dizon is acutely aware of the term “white elephant”. It’s a specter that haunts the hosts of every major sporting event — stunning, enormous sports facilities, built at great cost, then boarded up and left abandoned months after the competition, their pools caked with mud.

It’s happened before, in Sydney, Athens, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, and Sochi, and it could very well happen in New Clark City.

“It’s a very valid and fair point,” he said when SPIN Life brought it up. “But when we planned and built these facilities, they were never meant to be just for the Southeast Asian Games.”

Dizon emphasized that these were all part of what he called “legacy planning”, and insisted that the facilities were built with future-proofing in mind.

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After the SEA Games, the next major competition that will be held in New Clark City would be the 10th ASEAN Para Games. Originally scheduled for this month, it was moved to March, giving the organizers a little more breathing room to get things ready. When SPIN Life visited in mid-January, maintenance and construction workers were spotted high up on the rafters or inspecting the grounds.

“There’s still a lot of work going on,” Dizon said of the preparations. While the scale may be smaller — 19 sports, instead of the SEA Games’ 56 — “it’s a bigger challenge. We have to make sure that what we gave the SEA Games athletes, we will give the same if not more to the para-athletes.”

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Then there is the Asian Swimming Championships, which will be held in November. The event is expected to bring in swimmers from more than 50 countries.

So that’s two major events that will happen over the course of seven months. And what of the rest of the year?

Funnily enough, Dizon believes that it’s the searing Tarlac temperature that will help keep the complex occupied well into 2020. Heat, after all, is becoming a real concern for the athletes who are going to be participating in the upcoming Olympics in Japan.

“The Tokyo summer is very similar [to here]: humid and very, very hot. Temperatures go up to 35 to 36 [degrees],” he said. “Even during the Games itself, we were already getting expressions of interest from countries from Europe and South America who wanted to use the facilities to train for Tokyo 2020 kasi they need to come early and they need to acclimatize.”

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And then, of course, the BCDA is also opening the complex to local competitions, similar to the PATAFA weekly relay series and the triathlon race that were held before the SEA Games.

While the grand debut of New Clark City as a center of sports was never in the original blueprints, the BCDA is leaning in on its newfound status. The aquatics center and the athletics stadium are just the start.

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“The next phase will most likely be multisport indoor facilities,” Dizon explained. “So you’re talking about martial arts, gymnastics, basketball, volleyball, badminton, boxing, and other priority sports like football.” They’re in deep discussions with the Philippine Sports Commission to get these in motion, though Dizon emphasized that these are all in the planning stages.

In the future, the BCDA envisions the sports complex of New Clark City to become a central training hub for Filipino sports, perhaps even replacing the decades-old legacy facilities in Manila. Dizon hopes New Clark City will also become a city for athletes — for them to live there, train there, and, when the Philippine High School for Sports finally becomes codified into law (which he expects to finally happen this year) for them to study there.

Into metropolis

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The overall plans for New Clark City’s sports hub dovetail into what’s going to happen to the city itself.

“New Clark City is the next Metro Manila, the next Metro Cebu, the next Metro Davao,” proclaimed Dizon confidently. “That’s the vision. Because we desperately need it. Especially in Luzon, because in Luzon, you only really have one [densely urbanized area], which is Metro Manila. Hence, its problems.”

Dizon looks at New Clark City as a “release valve” of sorts for the national capital region, a way for the capital city to breathe again by providing an alternative location where people can work, live, and prosper. And while the sports complex and the SEA Games were the city’s very public debut, the sports facilities are only a small part of the overall equation.

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Like a Marvel movie, the BCDA calls the Aquatics Center, the Athletic Stadium, and the Athlete’s Village as “Phase 1A.” And if the SEA Games hub was the city’s Iron Man — the flashy, crowd-pleasing beginning — the agency is hunkering down to complete the next few phases.

They’re less sexy than a sports stadium, but no less vital: the transfer of the Bangko Sentral mint from East Avenue, the construction of a Supreme Court outpost, as well as several other government offices.

Even in its current state, with just a few buildings up and only 40 hectares of New Clark City’s approximately 9,450 hectares developed, the BCDA must already set things up in place. The agency is already moving to build a solid transport base for the city. “Once you build [mass transportation] when the demand is there, you're already [too] late,” Dizon said.

He added: “Government has to take the lead there because it's very difficult for the private sector to get into mass transport, [since] they’ve got to make money right away.”

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That’s the BCDA’s wheelhouse. As a government agency, they can do things that the private sector can’t. And Dizon freely admitted that, for all the success of the Southeast Asian Games, running a sports stadium might not be one of those things.

“Kita mo yung Ultra, Rizal [Memorial Stadium]...” he said. “We just have to accept maybe government is not the best entity to operate and maintain facilities such as this.”

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So one of the key action plans this year is for the BCDA to let go.

“The plan is to privatize the operations and maintenance of the sports facilities,” he said. “We need private sector expertise, we need international expertise to really run and operate and maintain [them] for our athletes, and to be able to find other ways to make them self-sustaining and make them generate profits.”

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But while it’s still under their auspices, the BCDA is opening the sports complex to everyone. At the SEA Games, the stadium, the pool, and the park became instant tourist attractions, with people lining up at the base of the famed cauldron to take selfies with the Mañosa-designed monument.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the controversy surrounding the structure, its everlasting, gas-fed flame becoming a destination onto itself. While the flame may be off now, Dizon fully expects tourists to return when they reopen the complex to the public next month.

Towards the end of the interview, Dizon stood up and looked out the windows of BCDA’s headquarters in Clark Freeport Zone, thirty minutes away from New Clark City. He pointed out the Clark Airport expansion, scheduled to be completed by the middle of the year, and with his hands, sketched out the route of the train line that would connect the airport with the city.

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New Clark City’s arenas were just the opening shot. The marathon — to build a city where there was none — is only just beginning.

To stand alone inside the Athletics Stadium is to feel a sense of awe at the accomplishment of Team Philippines. The hope is that these arenas would stand forever in its honor. But at the farthest seats, high up the rows of bleachers, cobwebs are already gathering. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

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PHOTO: Echo Antonio
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