Philippine Olympic Champ Wades Into Manila’s South China Sea Dispute With Beijing

Marielle Lucenio
Manila
2021-07-29
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Philippine Olympic Champ Wades Into Manila’s South China Sea Dispute With Beijing Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz waves to photographers at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila after arriving from Tokyo, where she won the Philippines’ first-ever gold medal in Olympic competition, July 28, 2021.
[AFP]

The Philippines’ first Olympic champion, weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, lent her voice to nationalist sentiments by unequivocally declaring on Thursday that the contested South China Sea “is ours.”

Diaz spoke to reporters in Manila after returning home with a gold medal won at the Tokyo Games. Among other topics, she answered questions about a photograph that showed her wearing a T-shirt saying “West Philippine Sea is ours” – the name Filipinos use for Manila-claimed waters and territories in the South China Sea.

“From what I know, what is ours, is ours,” Diaz told the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) at a virtual news conference.

“I don’t want to meddle in international disputes between countries, but I just want to say that it is ours.”

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters that overlap the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Diaz made the comments amid tensions between Manila and Beijing over the presence of Chinese ships inside the Philippines’ EEZ since March. Ten days ago, the Philippine Coast Guard said it had challenged a Chinese warship that entered Manila’s territorial waters but eventually sailed away.

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Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz of the Philippines competes in the women’s 55 kg event at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, July 26, 2021. [Reuters]

In Tokyo on Monday, Diaz out lifted Chinese fellow competitor Liao Qiuyun to win the women’s weightlifting event in the 55-kg category. Liao placed second overall and Diaz became the first Filipino to win a gold medal since the Philippines first began to compete in the Olympic Games in 1924.

The combined 224 kg that Diaz lifted on her way to the gold also set a new record in her weight class at the quadrennial games; Diaz lifted 127 kg on her final attempt.

The Philippines’ weightlifting boss, Monico Puentevella, earlier on Thursday said he had used territorial tensions with Beijing to psychologically pump up Diaz, who was being coached by a national from China, a perennial powerhouse in the Olympics.

“China beat us many times, so you have to take revenge,” Puentevella said he told Diaz.

“The West Philippine Sea is really ours, so [Diaz] grabbed that win,” Puentevella told a local radio station.

‘Let bygones be bygones’

Diaz returned to Manila to a hero’s welcome Wednesday, and immediately left for a city hotel to observe a 10-day coronavirus quarantine.

After she arrived, President Rodrigo Duterte called the Olympian to congratulate her.

In 2019, his government had tagged Diaz as part of a list of people including journalists and celebrities alleged to be plotting to oust or destabilize the Duterte administration. But the government never publicized any proof to back up the allegations.

“Thank you for your sacrifice. I hope that the years of toil, the years of disappointment of what happened in the past, just forget them,” Duterte told Diaz upon her return from Tokyo.

Duterte, however, did not directly apologize to her for his government’s action two years ago, according to transcripts of the brief conversation of his video call with Diaz.

“You already have the gold, and it would be good for you to just let bygones be bygones and dwell on your victory together with your family and of course the nation,” the president said, most certainly referring to the controversy.

Duterte also announced he would reward Diaz with U.S. $60,000 from his own purse, in addition to a government award of 10 million pesos (about $200,000).

Since her gold medal win, Diaz has received rewards from the private sector and the government totaling more than U.S. $700,000.

Before going to Tokyo, Diaz had said she was struggling for financial support from the government. She said she had asked her social media followers if she could get private sector sponsorships for the 2020 Olympics.

On Thursday, Diaz, a silver medalist in the 2016 Rio Olympics who serves as a sergeant in the Philippine air force reserves, did not shrink from revealing to reporters how the 2019 controversy had affected her.

“Honestly I went through so much, after winning in the 2016 Olympics, it’s so hard to sustain and then there was a matrix, right? I have sacrificed a lot, but God has a plan,” Diaz said.

The matrix – a graphic that names those allegedly in on the plot to destabilize the government –included several news organizations who were critical of Duterte’s war on drugs, his administration’s cornerstone policy.

Still, Diaz said, she had already forgiven Duterte as well as his then-spokesman Salvador Panelo, who had first made the allegations at a news conference.

“I hope this doesn’t happen to others. Not everyone is like me who can endure.”

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