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It took a woman to end the Philippines’ 97-year Olympic gold medal drought

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Weightlifting - Women's 55kg - Group A
Reuters/Chris Graythen
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The Philippine national anthem has played at the Olympics for the first time in history.

Filipina Hidelyn Diaz hoisted a barbel more than twice her body weight and won the women’s 55 kg category for weightlifting at the Tokyo 2020 games on Monday (July 26). The 30-year old weightlifter and Philippine Air Force sergeant set two Olympic records in the process and ended the country’s near-century quest for an Olympic gold medal.

“I’m shocked that I was able to do it,” she said to a local station after an emotional medal ceremonies at the Tokyo International Forum. “In truth, I was nervous—maybe I won’t be able to do it. But the whole day—the whole week—I told myself, ‘believe,  believe.’

“For all the things I’ve gone through, God prepared me to be strong today,” she said.

Diaz, who been to the Olympics four times and won a silver medal at the Rio Games, has had a particularly challenging journey to the Tokyo games. She was stranded in Malaysia during the Covid-19 lockdown, struggled with her weight, nearly ran out of money during training, and was even falsely implicated in a plot to overthrow the Philippines’s strongman president Rodrigo Duterte in 2019.

According to the Philippines’s sports medal incentive scheme, Diaz is entitled to $200,000 (10 million Philippine pesos) and a medal of valor from the government. Several private donors have also added to the Tokyo 2020 pot, bringing up her total bonus to $650,000 (PhP 33 million). Diaz used part of the $100,000 she received for winning the runner-up prize in Rio to open a free youth weightlifting gym in her hometown.

Filipinos rejoice the world over

The Filipinos exploded with jubilation upon hearing about Diaz’s historic feat. Screen captures showing her winning moment dominated Filipino social media feeds. Several noted about how Diaz’s feat underscored the daily heroism of Filipino women.

“I am so happy. A Filipina brought it home!,” beams Leonora Sengco, a retired Filipino teacher based in New Jersey. “The Philippines should be as strong as her.”

She says Diaz’s triumph evokes the self-sacrifice and grit of Filipina women including her daughter-in-law Sophia who was visiting with one-year old grandson during the interview. A recent immigrant to the US, Sophia tells Quartz that Diaz’s influence goes beyond sports. “I feel so proud. Her story is affirmation that we can win through any struggle.”

Reuters/Edgard Garrido
Golden moment for an entire nation.

Duterte and Diaz: strongman vs. strongwoman

The timing of Diaz’s win wasn’t lost on critics of the Duterte administration. She completed medal-winning 127 kg lift in the competition’s clean and jerk round as the president was concluding his last state of the nation address—a drawn-out political spectacle that lasted for nearly three hours.

Senator Risa Hontiveros who has been critical of the Duterte’s Covid-19 policies, juxtaposed the two events.

Vice president Leni Robredo, who positions herself as Duterte’s ideological opposite, tweeted back-to-back congratulatory messages. The president’s office did commend Diaz via a statement delivered by presidential spokesperson Harry Roque.

But Diaz is staying out of the political fray. Her celebratory plans are much simpler and characteristically Filipino: sitting down for a hearty meal.

“I will eat a lot tonight,” she said to Yahoo News, noting a craving for bubble tea and cheesecake. “I’ve been sacrificing my food and this is the time to celebrate together with the people who are behind me. I’m really thankful I can eat now.”

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