Hidilyn Diaz stands just a little over 5’2″, but she towers over the Philippines — nay, the world — today. And she proves herself to be head and shoulders above all and sundry not just because she brings home the first Olympic gold medal in the history of the Pearl of the Orient Seas. She deserves all the accolades she has received, and more, because she had to work hard — make that very, very hard — en route. It’s difficult to be unique in sports, where stories of winners coming out of nowhere seem to be told with each passing competition. Still, there can be no doubting her singular passion to succeed not for herself, but for flag and country.
Just two years ago, Diaz was the subject of shame in social media circles for daring to expose the relative lack of support she had been receiving from the government. The usual denials came, and, with them, criticisms from keyboard warriors who knew next to nothing about her plight. How dare she raise her concerns, they argued, pampered as she was? Through all the unwarranted opprobrium, she carried on. She didn’t need to, really, having already proven herself time and again in the grandest stages. She could have just parlayed her name into lucrative ventures that didn’t require her to accomplish excruciatingly difficult multi-joint whole-body lifts. But she pressed forward, in part because she was just being herself in so doing, and in larger measure because she knew she bore the weight of a country on her shoulders, and she carried it proudly.
That Diaz persevered in the face of challenge after challenge is no surprise. After all, her very foray into weightlifting was marked with obstacles she needed to hurdle in order to press on. She dabbled in basketball and volleyball before she found her calling. She competed in the 2008 Beijing Games as a wild card, and her DNF result in London four years later served to strengthen her resolve. Her objective remained the same, and a change in weight class heading into the Rio Olympiad made it less Sisyphean to those from the outside looking in. For her, however, it was simply another step towards her date with fate. Meeting her ultimate goal was a matter of when and not if.
That said, the pandemic nearly put a halt to Diaz’s quest. Lockdown protocols and an unfortunate turn kept her in Malaysia for close to half a year, and then in Malacca to prep for the Tokyo Games. In between, she held online workshops to raise funds. A less-determined competitor would have suffered from all the distractions, not to mention separation from family, but not her. She kept her eyes on the prize. There was no quit in her, and, egged on by a team that included coaches Gao Kaiwen and Julius Naranjo, she plodded on.
Considering Diaz’s myriad close calls, it was but fitting that she had to go through the formidable Liao Qiuyun on the road to triumph. In every step of the competition, the World Cup and Asian and World Championships titleholder in the 55-kilogram division seemed to forge ahead, only for her to strike back. The lead changes would go on all the way to the end, when her 127-kilogram lift in the clean and jerk — not coincidentally the same category that felled her in 2008 and 2012 — proved to be the clincher. She cried even as she still had the barbell in her hands, and her countrymen could not help but cry with her.
Pride was etched in Diaz’s masked face when she sang the national anthem and saluted the Philippine flag being raised during the medal ceremony. Tears ran down her cheeks, and only those with stone-cold hearts would have been unmoved by the scene. At that moment, she underscored what being a Filipino truly means.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.