Philippines Toasts First Filipino to Strike Gold at Olympics

Marielle Lucenio and Jeoffrey Maitem
Manila and Cotabato, Philippines
Philippines Toasts First Filipino to Strike Gold at Olympics The Philippines’ Hidilyn Diaz reacts after placing first in the women’s 55 kg weightlifting competition during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, July 26, 2021.

Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, the first athlete to win a gold medal for the Philippines at the Olympics, will return home to a hero’s welcome this week although the Duterte administration had tagged her in 2019 as an alleged government destabilizer.

The sports-crazy Southeast Asian country had never struck gold in nearly a century of competition at the Olympic level until Diaz, 30, clinched victory in the women’s 55-kilogram weightlifting event at the Tokyo games on Monday.

When the air force reservist won a silver medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Diaz promised Filipinos she would bring home their country’s first gold medal since the Philippines began competing in the quadrennial games in 1924.

In an interview with the Filipino press contingent in Tokyo on Monday after she won the gold medal, Diaz thanked all the people back home who had prayed for her and believed in her.

But, Diaz also said, a lack of financial help and controversies at home had affected her after she won the silver medal in Rio.

“I went through a lot after the Olympics. It was difficult. And then the matrix happened,” Diaz said in the pooled interview, which aired on Philippine television. “My life became very messy at that time.”

In 2019, then presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo presented a so-called “matrix” of personalities and organizations who were alleged to be plotting to destabilize or oust the Duterte administration. Diaz, who hails from the southern Zamboanga city, was on this blacklist.

Panelo had said at the time that the matrix was based on intelligence information compiled by the government. The political opposition dismissed the claim, but the spokesman never apologized for it, nor did Panelo provide proof to back up the allegations.

The matrix – a graphic that names those allegedly in on the plot –included several news organizations who were critical of Duterte’s war on drugs, his administration’s cornerstone policy. One of those on the blacklist was online news site Rappler, whose chief editor, Maria Ressa, was later convicted of cyber libel in what was widely seen as a move by Duterte to go after his critics in the press.

Duterte later replaced Panelo as his spokesman but retained him as his chief legal adviser.

On Tuesday, however, Panelo appeared to have a change of heart and congratulated Diaz.

“Her feat makes us Filipinos proud. Her getting the gold is a testament to the Filipino race’s talent and indefatigable spirit,” Panelo said in a statement.

“It serves as an inspiration to all Filipino athletes that getting gold in the Olympics is no longer a dream but a reality,” he said.

Still, he did not apologize for blacklisting Diaz two years ago.

A portrait of weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, the first athlete from the Philippines to win an Olympic gold medal, is seen at a gym where her junior team members train in Zamboanga City, southern Philippines, July 27, 2021. [AFP]

Harry Roque, the current presidential spokesman, also praised the Olympian, saying her victory was one for the entire country.

But he distanced himself from the original accusation leveled against Diaz by his predecessor.

“I do not know what this matrix that they are talking about. And the government has just one official spokesperson – me,” Roque said.

Duterte, he said, had promised an award of “millions” to any athlete who would bring home gold medals, on top of the financial awards committed by the private sector.

Roque conceded there was a lack of government financial support to its athletes in training, and that they were only given “minimum wage” for their allowance.

“Whatever shortcomings we had in training, I’m sure that the government and the private sector will make up for it because she truly made us proud,” Roque said.

“Money could never make up for it, but let us show our love for her by not only congratulating her, but giving her a reward as well,” he said.

A law signed by the Benigno Aquino III, the former president who died last month, mandates that any Filipino who wins gold in the Olympics is assured to be rewarded at least 10 million Philippine pesos (about U.S. $200,000).

“I think this victory is also a game changer for Philippine sports,” Roque said, adding it would force policy makers to really “push for bigger support for athletes.”

A BenarNews correspondent contributed to this report from Zamboanga City, Philippines.

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