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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Hidilyn Diaz's Tokyo triumph lifts Philippines out of COVID blues

First gold medalist beats better-funded rivals and outshines Duterte speech

Hidilyn Diaz, the Philippines' first gold medalist, stands on the podium on July 26.   © Reuters

TOKYO/MANILA -- Every fourth Tuesday of July, the president's state of the nation address typically dominates newspaper headlines in the Philippines. But this morning, rather than focusing on the last such speech of strongman Rodrigo Duterte's presidency, the front pages featured a woman's historic achievement.

Hidilyn Diaz won the country's first-ever Olympic gold medal on Monday night, besting world champion Liao Qiuyun of China in the women's 55 kg weightlifting. The 30-year-old from southern Zamboanga set an Olympic record, hoisting a total of 224 kg, one more than Liao.

"I just want to say that we Filipinos are strong. We Filipinos can compete here at the Olympics," Diaz said at a post-competition news conference.

Her victory gave a boost to a country that has been under varying degrees of lockdown since March 2020, plunging the economy into a 9.6% contraction and eliminating 4.5 million jobs last year. Daily infections have fallen from their peak but are still averaging around 5,000. Over 27,000 have died.

Hours before Diaz's competition, Duterte also lauded his war on drugs, a signature policy which has killed over 6,000 suspects in police operations.

Filipino resilience was the theme of Diaz's journey to the 2020 Tokyo Games, according to her coach, Julius Naranjo. Diaz overcame not only the weight of her country's expectations, but also a year of pandemic anxiety and four years of financial uncertainty.

"She beat countries like China and Uzbekistan who have well-developed weightlifting programs," said RJ Garcia, a fitness coach in Manila.

On social media, Filipinos celebrating Diaz's triumph also criticized the chronic underfunding of national sports programs. The Southeast Asian country is fielding only 19 athletes, including Diaz and golfer Yuka Saso, the reigning U.S. Women's Open champion. The commission received a budget of 250 million pesos ($4.97 million) for this Olympic year.

Diaz had to appeal for private sponsorship in June 2019 to finance her training. "I'm having a hard time," she wrote in Filipino on Instagram. "I'm embarrassed to ask, but I'll be shameless for my dream for our country to take home the gold medal in the Olympics."

A private foundation funded by billionaire businessman Manny V. Pangilinan donated 1.5 million pesos, enabling her to move her training base from Kuala Lumpur to an isolated area of Melaka when COVID-19 cases began rising in the Malaysian capital.

Although she received 2 million pesos from the Philippine Sports Commission shortly after the Instagram post, any chances of additional funding from the government were marred by politics.

Diaz, who rose to prominence after winning a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, was implicated by the president's office in 2019 in an alleged plot by communists and the political opposition to oust Duterte. She dismissed the allegation, but feared for her safety when the president's ardent supporters "red tagged" her.

"My orders to you: If you see them walking around, kindly shoot them dead, and I will be happy," Duterte said about suspected communists in his national address on Monday.

Celebrations of Diaz's victory took on a geopolitical tinge, with some Filipinos pointing out that she defeated a Chinese opponent as the Philippines faces off with its larger neighbor in the contested South China Sea. With seven gold medals, China is currently third in the Olympic ranking after the U.S. and Japan.

Earlier on Monday, Filipino skateboarder Margielyn Didal finished seventh in the women's street event. Didal, the 22-year-old daughter of a carpenter and sidewalk vendor, won gold at the 2018 Asian Games. Boxer Nesthy Petecio also won her match against Taiwan's Lin Yu Ting, advancing to the women's featherweight quarterfinals.

By law, Diaz will receive a reward of 10 million pesos ($198,785) from the Philippine government, with another 2.5 million pesos from her home city. Pangilinan and San Miguel Corporation president Ramon S. Ang have pledged 10 million pesos each, according to the Philippine Star newspaper.

"For the longest time, she was an unknown. She went to her first two Olympic campaigns with barely any recognition and minimum support," said Garcia, the fitness coach. "And yet, she kept training consistently for years. With her performance, she shows what it takes to be the best."

Regine Sulit, a kettlebell athlete and coach in Manila, said she was screaming as she watched Diaz's lifts and cried during her final one.

Sulit said, "I hope this win lights up the path for more Filipinos to keep lifting ... now and after we all recover from the pandemic hit!"

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