It’s one thing to have to overcome the odds in order to win a gold medal for your country; it’s quite another to have to overcome your own country, as weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz has done. She has completed her journey from being labeled a member of an alleged insurgency plan against her own government to national icon by winning the Philippines’ first gold medal at the Olympics. Her athletic success is a fascinating story in and of itself, but there is much more to discover beneath the surface.
To begin, a little background on Diaz: She was born into a poor family of six children on the Mindanao Peninsula in the Philippines’ south. She saw sports as a means to a better life, but she was originally interested in banking as a career. Her first weights were made from plastic pipes and concrete, a far cry from the high-end equipment she now has.
Despite qualifying, Diaz didn’t come close to medaling in either the Beijing 2008 or London 2012 games, and she had to rely on new coaches to improve her game. Nonetheless, she persisted.
Late in her career, she experienced a renaissance. During the 2016 Rio Olympics, she did the unthinkable and broke the Philippines’ 20-year medal drought by winning silver in the women’s 53-kg weightlifting division. Her national profile grew further after a win at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, as her national status grew as a result of her success.
However, her government did not always make it easy for her to compete. Even after winning the Asian Games, Diaz had to turn to Instagram to request financial assistance and sponsorship from private companies, claiming that the government was not providing enough training facilities and funds. The government reacted angrily to this claim, with the chairman of the Philippine Sports Commission claiming that they were not “refusing to support 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.”
Nonetheless, Diaz’s career seemed to be on the rise, funding issues and all. She remained an Olympic medalist, a household name, and Asia’s weightlifting champion.
Later that year, however, Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ strongman president, decided to go beyond talking and began to see her as something far more sinister than a champion. Diaz was chastised and threatened online after her name appeared on a list compiled by a Duterte spokesperson of dozens of alleged plotters attempting to depose Duterte. It’s unclear why Diaz was included on this list, but it does seem rather convenient that it came after her outspoken comments about athletics funding.
Diaz thought her inclusion was a joke, but she didn’t last long. While the government later clarified 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 had already been done. Diaz began to fear for her life and the lives of her family as death threats began to pour in, which must have been a major distraction while she was preparing for the Tokyo Games.
And it is almost certain that the list that jeopardized her life, career, and family came from the president himself, which must have been especially disheartening for her as a member of the Philippine Air Force, which is ostensibly under his command.
While Duterte’s term is about to expire, he has expressed interest in and garnered widespread support for a return to the nation’s highest office as Vice President—a backdoor for him to retain power. Even as Duterte prepares to “resign,” it appears that citizens in the Philippines will continue to face his repressive tactics, and the international community must remain wary 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.