It’s one thing to have to overcome the odds to win a gold medal for your country; quite another when, like weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, you have to overcome your country itself. As the winner of the Philippines’ first gold medal at the Olympics ever, she has completed her journey from being labeled a member of an alleged insurrection plan against her own government to national icon. Her athletic success is a story in itself, but there’s far more to understand lurking under the surface.
First, a little background on Diaz: She was born to a family of six children in relative poverty on the Mindanao Peninsula in the South of the Philippines. She saw sports as a pathway to a better life, but originally focused on banking as a career path. Her first weights were homemade from plastic pipes with concrete, a far cry from the elite equipment she now has access to.
Despite qualifying, Diaz didn’t come close to threatening for a medal during the Beijing 2008 or London 2012 games, and had to turn to new coaches to boost her game. Still, she persisted.
Late in her career, she began to enjoy a renaissance. During the Rio Games in 2016, she accomplished the unthinkable and ended the Philippine’s 20-year medal drought by earning silver in the women’s 53-kg weightlifting division. As her national status grew from this success, her profile grew further after a win at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.
But her government didn’t always make it easy on her as a competitor. Even after triumphing in the Asian Games, Diaz had to turn to Instagram to implore for financial assistance and sponsorship from private companies because, she said, the government wasn’t helping enough in terms of training facilities and finances. The government took some exception to this claim, with the chairman of the Philippine Sports Commission arguing that they were not “remiss of its support to Hidilyn. Despite what it seems, we at the PSC choose to see her for what she is, a champion…It would be good for Hidilyn to visit us so we could talk and clarify matters.”
Still, it seemed as if Diaz’s career trajectory was on up and up—funding issues be damned. She was still an Olympic medalist, a household name, and the weightlifting champion of Asia.
But later that year, Rodrigo Duterte—the strongman president of the Philippines–decided to go way past talking and started seeing her as something far more insidious than a champion. Diaz was chastised and threatened online when her name appeared on a list from a Duterte spokesperson of dozens of alleged plotters trying to oust Duterte from power. It is not entirely clear why Diaz was on this list, but it does seem rather convenient that it followed her outspoken comments on athletics funding.
Diaz thought her inclusion was a joke, but wasn’t laughing for long. What was described as a “cyber army” came after her almost immediately, While the government clarified days later that she was not involved in the ‘Oust Duterte matrix,’ the damage in vilifying Diaz and the dozens of human rights lawyers, journalists, and opposition politicians was already done. Diaz began to fear for her life and the life of her family as death threats began to pour in, which must have been a massive distraction as she was in the midst of a qualification effort for the Tokyo Games.
And it is almost certain that the list that put her life, career, and family in jeopardy came from the president himself, which must have been all the more disheartening as a member of the Filipino Air Force that is ostensibly under his command.
This wasn’t the only challenge Diaz was facing. Prior to Tokyo, she had not been home to see her family in nearly 2 years—stuck in her training hub of Malaysia in a limbo of COVID-19 restrictions. Stuck in an apartment, Diaz had to take care while training to not crack the tiled floor of her Malaysian accommodation with dropped weights; but, she trained on while somehow also finding the wherewithal to distribute food care packages to poor families from her home who had been devastated by the pandemic. And while all this was going on, she was also on a strictly controlled diet as part of her work to stay in a lower weight class. Oh, and don’t forget that her and her family still had to worry whether they would once again be branded political enemies of the state by Duterte.
Yet, somehow Diaz pulled it all off. Maybe it was some mix of adrenaline and anxiety, but in the limelight she set her own personal record by lifting 127 kilograms in the clean & jerk (she hadn’t even managed that in practice) and won the Philippines’ first ever gold medal at the Olympics. And then the gifts came showering in.
For her though, the biggest relief might have been the reaction of her former terrorizer: President Duterte. In an almost unprecedented move for the strongman, he apologized and ‘forgave’ Diaz saying “Just forget them, you already have the gold. Gold is gold. And it would be good for you to just let bygones be bygones and dwell solely on your victory, together with your family and of course with the nation.”
Diaz’s parents still fear that her life could be in danger once again in the future. She’s hardly alone in this fear. Duterte’s violent rule that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of impoverished drug addicts through an unforgivable state-sponsored murder spree and massive problems with human trafficking; Diaz’s story shows he has the power to reach anyone in the Philippines. And Duterte isn’t done, telling unvaccinated citizens he doesn’t care if they die (despite flubbing the vaccine rollout) and reinforcing his pledge to murder drug addicts in cold blood on the street.
While Duterte’s term is about to expire, he has expressed interest and garnered widespread support to return to the nation’s highest office as Vice-President—a backdoor for him to maintain power. Even as Duterte prepares to “leave” office, it seems that citizens of the Philippines will still have to contend with his repressive tactics and the international community must remain weary of his actions.
For Diaz, it took an Olympic gold medal to get back in the president’s good graces. Not everyone has that option.