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Philippine weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz said she had to overcome ‘so many adversities’ before winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Reuters

Hidilyn Diaz is the Philippines’ Olympic hero, two years after being accused of plotting against Duterte

  • The weightlifter won the country’s first gold Olympic medal and has attributed her success particularly to her Chinese coach Gao Kaiwen
  • Two years ago, she was named in the ‘matrix’ diagram of plotters released by former presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, who has rejected criticism over it
Two years before winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics on Monday, Philippine weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz was mocked and threatened online after her name was included on a list of dozens of people alleged to be plotting to oust President Rodrigo Duterte.

But with the 30-year-old ending her country’s almost century-long wait for an Olympic gold medal by winning the women’s 55kg class event and receiving accolades all round, senior Duterte aides have sought to distance themselves from that episode without offering any apologies.

It was only on Wednesday night that Duterte urged Diaz to “let bygones be bygones” during a Zoom call broadcast on state television. Congratulating Diaz on her performance, the president pledged to reward her with 3 million pesos (US$60,000) out of his own pocket, and told her to “forget” about “bad things” from the past.

“You already have the gold and it would be good for you to let bygones be bygones,” he said.

On Tuesday, newspapers across the country featured a tearful and ecstatic Diaz on their front pages, with her win overshadowing details of the final annual national address by Duterte, whose term ends next year.

Philippine politicians rushed to congratulate Diaz, who is a sergeant in the Philippine Air Force, with foreign embassies in Manila doing the same on Twitter. Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said: “Her success is a testament to the unwavering spirit of the Filipino to rise above all odds.”

Vice-President Leni Robredo posted on Facebook: “Big win for the Philippines!! Thank you for making us proud, Hidilyn.”

Hidilyn Diaz is Philippines’ first Olympic gold medallist after 55kg weightlifting triumph

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque also praised Diaz but distanced himself from what is known as the “ouster plot matrix”, a diagram circulated in May 2019 linking dozens of journalists, opposition politicians and human rights lawyers to a vast conspiracy, overseen by drug lords, to force Duterte from office. Bizarrely, Diaz was one of the names included in the “matrix”.

“As a spokesperson, I did not accuse Hidilyn Diaz of anything,” he said.

Indeed, it was Duterte’s presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo, who served as presidential spokesperson two years ago, that presented the matrix to the media.

There was no explanation of how Diaz came to be in the picture at that time and on Tuesday, Panelo rejected criticism over his role in the incident.

Former presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo. Photo: Twitter

“It is truly disheartening that there are people who seek to take the limelight out of Ms Diaz’s recent triumph and convert it into a political skirmish of who should and should not celebrate our country’s win,” he said.

“Her feat makes us Filipinos proud. Her getting the gold is a testament to the Filipino race’s talent and indefatigable spirit. It serves as an inspiration to all Filipino athletes that getting gold in the Olympics is no longer a dream but a reality.”

Duterte reiterates threat to kill drug dealers, denies taking money from China

Human rights lawyer Ruben Carranza on Tuesday condemned Panelo’s congratulatory message for “pretending [the presidential palace] didn’t put the Philippines’ first Olympic gold medallist in Duterte’s death squad hit list just two years ago”.

Back then, Diaz strenuously denied her involvement at the time, insisting “my mother is terrified”.

“Don’t link the name of a person who is busy making sacrifices for the Philippines and who is doing everything to represent the Philippines in weightlifting,” she said in 2019. “I am focused on my Tokyo 2020 goal.”

On Monday, she said: “I went through so many adversities... After winning [a silver medal in 2016] … it was very difficult for me to sustain [the effort] … then the matrix happened, didn’t it?”

I’d like to say to all Filipinos, nothing is impossible
Hidilyn Diaz

In the run up to this year’s Olympics, which were postponed for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Diaz moved to Malaysia and lived in a “kampung” house in rural Malacca. It was difficult to train in the Philippines, and her coach Gao Kaiwen, 64, who has trained multiple Chinese Olympic medallists, felt she needed to prepare without distractions.

“I’d like to say to all Filipinos, nothing is impossible,” she said after her victory. “Despite the pandemic, we’re here and we brought home the medal.”

Diaz also credited Gao in particular for her success at the Games, telling Xinhua news agency that while he was strict, he was good at teaching her techniques.

“He knows the basics of weightlifting and my personality quite well. It is different when you learn new things with him,” said Diaz.

Gao told Xinhua that Diaz had remained optimistic under pressure and while he was happy for her, he had mixed feelings that she had beaten the weightlifter from China, Liao Qiuyun.

“It is not an easy job for a girl coming from a poor family of Zamboanga City, the Philippines, to keep up intense training at the age of 30,” said Gao.

“It was a great pity to watch the athlete from my country take a silver,” he added.

Winning the gold will be a life-changing event for the daughter of a tricycle driver from Mindanao. As a reward, Diaz will receive at least 33 million pesos from the government and private sector, as well as a house and several other pledges from real estate companies. Air Asia has also awarded her a lifetime of free travel while Philippine Airlines has offered her 80,000 free flying miles each year.

It was a great pity to watch the athlete from my country take a silver
Chinese coach Gao Kaiwen, who trained Hidilyn Diaz, on his mixed feelings

Duterte supporters, however, have been determined to claim her victory as a win for the government, even though Diaz had to take to social media in mid-2019 to plead for more funding to sustain her training. Her plea did not sit well with state sports officials at the time.

Diaz’s victory has highlighted funding shortfalls for athletes who compete internationally. This year, the Philippine government budgeted only 250 million pesos to send 19 athletes to Tokyo.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters