It may only be games, but nothing in culture can galvanize a nation the way a world championship can, and, it just so happens, in the months ahead there will be nearly a surfeit of sports nationalism. It's only a few weeks now before the Winter Olympics, and then, come June, the soccer World Cup, which is by far the most passionate international competition of all. Yet in 2010 there is one little athlete who can mean more to his country -- and to his sport -- than all the skaters and skiers and soccer teams in the world.
The man is a boxer,
The Philippines, of course, is an impoverished island nation, which has led to a diaspora of its people. In fact, Filipinos make up the third largest group of immigrants in the U.S., after only Mexicans and Chinese -- and they've shown well what they can do with the main chance. Filipinos here are far better educated and wealthier than the American population at large. But Pacquaio is so special to all ethnic Filipinos, rich or poor, in the islands or abroad, because his country has never before produced any champion that it could hold high before the world. No Filipino has ever even won a single Olympic gold medal.
Pacquiao is so beloved that when he ran for Congress a couple of years ago, he was soundly beaten largely because, as the adored national icon, his fans voted against him to keep him out of office so he wouldn't dilute his attention to the ring. Surely, would every politician in the world like to say: "I lost because they love me too much." No, sorry -- only Manny Pacquaio, ever.
He's an extraordinary boxer, the first ever to hold seven world titles, for he began fighting at a tiny hundred and six pounds and now, incredibly, holds the welterweight crown at one-forty-seven. Already there are those experts debating whether he is the greatest fighter ever -- better than
But boxing is lucky that Pacquiao is as exciting in the ring as he is talented. When he fights the undefeated American,
Should he win over Mayweather, himself previously acclaimed the best pound-for-pound fighter, Pacquaio's place in the boxing pantheon will be sealed. But already he has taken this brutal sport and distilled from its blood and guts the pretty pride that Filipinos never shared before. For all its faults, sport can still do that for a country.