Until Monday, the Philippines, a sports-mad country of nearly 110 million people, had never won an Olympic gold medal.
But Hidilyn Diaz, a weightlifter at her fourth Olympics, finally broke the Philippines’ nearly century-long drought by capturing a gold in the women’s 55-kilogram division, achieving two Olympic records in the process.
“It’s unbelievable,” she said, caressing the gold medal hanging on her neck. “I expected to win, but when you hold this already, it’s like, Wow, I never thought this would happen today.”
Diaz, 30, said that her record-breaking 127 kilogram lift in the clean and jerk event was the first time she had successfully hefted that much weight. In training, she had maxed out at 125 kilograms, she said.
She also claimed another Olympic record for the total of her two best lifts, one in the snatch and the other in the clean and jerk.
The finale of the 55-kilogram competition provided high drama in a sport that can sometimes feel preordained, given the dominance of a Chinese squad that was expected to prevail in all four weight classes it was contesting in Tokyo.
Diaz, a silver medalist at the 2016 Rio Olympics, went into the competition hoping to win a medal but the gold seemed like it was the preserve of Liao Qiuyun, the Chinese reigning Asia champion. In the most recent Asia championships, Diaz, who is 4 feet 11 inches, had come in fourth.
But as the other top contenders approached the barbells grim-faced Monday, Diaz kept smiling. On the final lift, the top three competitors and their coaches scrambled to decide what weight they should call. Too light, and they might be outpaced. Too heavy, and they might not make the lift.
For her last turn, the Chinese competitor cleared 126 kilograms, an Olympic record, with barely a hint of discomfort. To win, Diaz would have to surpass what she had done before — by 2 kilograms. She pulled the bar to her clavicle, then staggered for a moment as she thrust the barbells into the sky. One Mississippi, two Mississippi.
The gold was hers.
The second youngest of six siblings, Diaz grew up in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga, a place intermittently seized by sectarian conflict. Her family was poor, and she tried weight lifting as an 11-year-old, tagging along with the older boys of her family.
It turned out she could lift more than the boys. She started out with pieces of wood, then jeep wheel protectors, then blocks of cement.
She eventually was recruited to the Philippine national team, but when sports officials mentioned the 2008 Beijing Olympics to her, she didn’t know what the Games were, she said. As a 17-year-old at those Games, she was the youngest female weightlifter in competition.
In 2012, Diaz suffered an injury that left her mentally and physically drained, she said. Quitting weightlifting, though, didn’t seem an option.
“It was just survival,” she said. “I’m the breadwinner in my family.”
But the fun eventually returned, and Diaz won a silver in Rio. Desperate for a gold medal, the Philippine sporting establishment persuaded her not to retire before Tokyo.
The Philippines is crazy for sports. During the years of American colonization, the YMCA introduced a new sport played with a ball and fruit baskets. Today, basketball is ubiquitous across the archipelago. Boxing is popular, too, especially after Manny Pacquiao, the longtime champion turned politician, burst onto the scene.
Since the early days of the pandemic, Diaz has been training in Malaysia, staying away from the Philippines, where cases proliferated despite a strict lockdown.
At the Asian championship in Uzbekistan in April, Diaz held back, said Monico Puentevella, a veteran politician who has also served as the head of the national weightlifting federation and the Philippine Olympic Committee. She settled for fourth. The idea was to lull the Chinese into thinking that Diaz had reached her full potential, he said. The ploy seemed to have worked.
“I have been dreaming of this gold medal for so many years,” said Puentevella, 75. “Now that she’s won, I can die happy.”
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