Good Sport Travel presents a guide to the city for those who like to explore, learn and keep active. Through various sports and areas we look at our favourite food joints, bars, galleries, yoga studios, spots to run and other places of interest. It's an evolving platform and the conversation is always open to expand and refine.
“It will be a killer, and a chiller, and a thriller, when I get the gorilla in Manila”
When Muhammad Ali uttered this racially loaded statement in the lead up to his third heavyweight title fight with Joe Frazier in 1975, even he couldn’t have predicted what lasting impact his words would have on the world of sport.
The Philippines, still reeling from the physical and cultural destruction of World War 2, was still grappling with forming a modern national identity. Pressingly, dictator Fernando Marcos had been in power for 10 years and was fast approaching the third year anniversary of the introduction of martial law. The empty promises of development and progress for the Filipino people were starting to wear thin. Marcos’ strategy of luring the fight to Manila was a political mask to divert worldwide attention away from the human rights abuses and squandering of public monies under his administration. Ali, simply a pawn in the desperate political game, was more than obliged to provide lip service to the Marcos regime who had paid him so handsomely to make the journey to Manila. Few outside the Philippines would remember the historical context of the event – partially because it still was one hell of a fight.
The ugly side of the relationship between sports and politics rolls on today unabated. Sporting demi-god cum-senator Manny Pacquaio with his support of the death penalty and homophobic remarks is a prudent reminder that celebrities and politics are still a dangerous mix. The recent political rise of Marcos’ son Bongbong and his alignment with current President Duterte have many worried that the suffering encountered in the past may rise again. Duterte’s recent threats to re-introduce marital law coupled with his grotesque war on drugs and dismissive human rights records make a fitting time to reflect upon the events that lead to Manila hosting the greatest boxing event in the world.
Politics or not, sport is a major component of modern life for many Manilenos. In spite of a lack of public funding, massive shortages of designated public space and numerous challenges with basic infrastructure, you will find sport being played in various capacity on nearly every street.
The US occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century was responsible for the introduction of basketball, volleyball, baseball and golf. There are still some martial arts that pre-date Spanish rule (1521) and elsewhere there are local interpretations of worldwide games. A billiards-like sport played on the streets substitutes balls with air hockey-like discs – a perfect adaptation for uneven surfaces and shining example of resilient nature of the Filipino people.
Boxing remains popular, however basketball has the most visible presence not just in Manila, but across the whole archipelago. From street corner grass roots participation to competitive national and international events, the ‘ball is life’ mantra is evident everywhere. The country wide obsession with hoops is held up with religion and adobo as pivotal elements of the Filipino psyche.
The area around where the Pasig River meets Manila Bay is, for all intents and purposes, the settlement spot of old Manila. On the south bank of the river you have the old walled city of Intramuros; the most significant historical space in the greater metropolitan and the lasting legacy of the 300 year Spanish rule. On the north side, the areas of Escolta, Quiapo and Recto host the last remnants of the art deco influence from the US colonization and the pulsating presence of Chinatown. For many Manilenos, this part of the city represents the old guard and for all its cultural clutter and controlled chaos, it still remains the heart and soul of the capital.
The heavily pedestrianised streets of Intramuros make it a breeze to get around by foot and a good spot to run. You will find a bit more space and plenty of basketball. Surrounding the walls is Club Intramuros, Manila’s only flood light golf course. Carved from the defensive moat that surrounded the historical wall, the course isn’t particularly challenging by golf standards but it’s pretty cheap and the views of the wall make for a very unique game. There’s a nice afternoon breeze which makes play bearable for the tropics or come later and take advantage of the lights for a post-sundowner. If you are more of a spectator, there are plenty of great vantage points on top of the wall to see the others shooting rounds.
Just north of bustling Quiapo is the University of Santo Tomas (UST) which is a hive of activity from early afternoons. The open grounds are used for a variety of sports which are sometimes a prerequisite for university studies. Keep an eye out for ‘Arnis’ - a traditional Filipino martial art utilizing two bamboo light saber(ish) sticks. The sport predates Spanish rule (1521) and remarkably survived after being banned during the 300-year occupation. Despite an undercurrent of tension amongst the various fractions of the sport, all would agree that its significance as a cultural pillar of colonial resistance makes it a vital beacon of pride for the country.
This is the newest division of the greater metropolitan area and its shiny streets and staged urban design makes it feel like nowhere else in the Philippines. ‘The Fort’ or ‘BGC’ is fast becoming the corporate hub of Manila owing to the increased development of high rise buildings and well-heeled residents. The grid design is easy to navigate as the streets are numbered (an ode to Manhattan) giving the feeling of a clash between Singapore and New York. You won’t find any street sports to join with the land being almost wholly privately owned.
There is a buzz of activity around 32nd street which is the main arterial road which connects BGC with Makati. Turf BGC is a FIFA-standard outdoor soccer pitch where you will usually find matches kicking off when the temperature drops in the early evening. Organized community competitions also take place year around on the weekends. Two blocks away is Track 30th with a 310 metre circuit and basic exercise equipment providing some essential open space for residents living in high rise buildings.
On the edge of BGC and neighbouring Taguig you will find a newish downhill mountain bike track called ‘Heroes Trail’ which backs onto Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes Cemetery). There are trails for all ages and most the action happens early on weekend mornings. The nearby Kagitingan course is the local army golf club with the driving range proving a popular spot for Mon-Fri crew to blow off some end of week steam.
Makati is the dated financial capital of Manila and today mixes the new world malls and residential complexes with the beige facades of the previous decades. If you know anyone living in the gated communities of Urdaneta or San Lorenzo villages you can find some great basketball courts with competitive matches on the weekend played amongst residents and Filipino service workers who live in the villages.
For those less connected, the surrounding barangays (council areas) have start-up games on nearly every street. Basketball usually kicks off when the temperature drops and school is out for the evening. Don’t expect a full backboard, standard ring or even a half court. Players are usually welcomed openly, just be aware that many games are played for small bets. Burgos and Pio del Pilar are great places to get started. Explore further if you are feeling adventurous.
If you find yourself in Manila during the temperamental typhoon season, it’s too hot outside or you want something different, head along to Makati Cinema Square. A pre apocalyptic shopping mall that has a mock UFO rusting on the side of the building. Move past the unassuming façade and amongst the DVD sellers, record shops and ukay ukay (thrift/op shops) you will find a decent (and cheap) bowling alley, indoor shooting range and archery gallery.
Skateboarding can be tough work with little in the way of strategic urban design coupled with omnipresent security in the more developed (and skatable) areas. One of the few skate parks in city is located at the Globe Circuit Grounds which sits tranquilly along the Pasig River. Adjacent the skatepark is another new enclosed soccer pitch (Gatorade Chelsea FC) further demonstrating the growth of the game in the Philippines in the last decade. There is also a go-kart track next to the soccer pitch although the equipment is worn and the entrance isn’t cheap.
For any ball enthusiasts, a visit to Manila wouldn’t be complete without dropping into the city’s most well-known street ball court. ‘The Tenement’ was an abandoned car park that has been transformed into low cost urban housing development by misplaced residents. At the centre of the structure is a basketball court which provides a perfect colosseum-like feel having hosted a range of local and international events in the past years.
Nike sponsored visits to the Tenement by Paul George and Lebron James in 2015 put the area on the map and provided brands and players an opportunity to connect with grass roots sports in the country. Since the international visits, global awareness of the Filipinos love for basketball has increased dramatically and the Tenement court has been featured numerous times on popular blogs like Hypebeast, Modern Notoriety and Slam Online.
A group of enthusiastic tenants and friends host a bi-annual local festival called Picnic Games which combines basketball, music and dance giving underprivileged youths an opportunity to participate in a modern cultural event whilst simultaneously drawing attention to some of the ongoing issues residents face amidst the external developments of the greater city.
Getting to the Tenement can be a little tricky if you are not familiar with roads, traffic or public transport. Your best bet is to connect with some local ballers who can show you around.
The Araneta stadium where Ali took on Frazier on that muggy morning back in 1975 still stands today. The stadium has had a number of modern upgrades since the fight - air conditioning being the most notable of the spectator comforts. Known locally as ‘The Big Dome’ and with a 16,000 capacity, the epicentre of professional sports hosts the PBA (Philippines Basketball Association) matches as well as boxing, volleyball and a raft of international concerts and events.
Nearby Cubao Expo is a great spot to visit with second hand record shops, ukay ukay, hip bars and few cobblers staking claim with the last remnants of it’s previous life as the centre of the local shoemaking industry.
Sitting between Quezon City and old Manila is La Loma a curious destination for those wanting to dive deeply into the culture of the Philippines. You could spend a morning visiting the Manila North Cemetery which has a residential population of 10,000 that live amongst the dead. Many of the families are employed to maintain the grave sites for relatives, operate small sari sari (convenience) stores or work in other areas of the cemeteries micro economy.
La Loma is also known for being the centre of the lechon (roasted suckling pig) trade with a number of roasting pits located around the southern streets outside the cemetery. The swine are turned mostly by hand over hot coals for up to eight hours with the spectacle providing a fascinating insight into Filipino food culture. Most roasting pits have an accompanying restaurant where you can sample the delicious staple straight from the spit.
The adjacent La Loma cockpit is also one of the biggest in the metropolitan area. Cockfighting itself is a fairly barbaric blood sport although you could argue that it’s no worse than the mass consumption of factory farmed meats. Indeed most breeders and trainers treat their prized animals better than they treat their own children. The most fascinating spectacle by far is the pit side gambling where bet takers are called ‘kristos’; a reference to their outstretched hands bearing a striking resemblance to a crucified Jesus. The chaos in the lead up to a fight sounds like a loose stock trading floor as the kristos used various hand gestures to indicate odds and take up to 10 bets from the crowd in their memory. At the conclusion of the fight they pay out the winners and receive folds of pesos from the losing spectators.