By Ted Lerner
The Olympics are generally a forgettable event for the Philippines. Prior to the Rio games, the country had only won 9 medals, and no gold medals. The Philippines last won a medal way back in 1996, when boxer Roel Velasco got robbed in his title match and had to settle for silver.
The Philippines slim chances at medalling has always rested on boxers, but this year, however, the country hit pay dirt from the most unlikely source. Hildilyn Diaz a 25 year old Filipina Air Force airwoman from Zamboanga won a silver medal in the 53kg weightlifting division.
To say that the country was stunned with Diaz’ silver was an understatement. Not only did Diaz become the rst Filipino athlete to win a medal in 20 long years, she became the rst female Filipino to ever win a medal in the Olympic games, and the rst non-boxer to medal since 1936. Overnight Diaz went from total obscurity to a national hero. She ew home from Rio and has already racked up over P7 million in rewards and will surely be reaping many deserved nancial windfalls in the coming months.
Where exactly did Diaz come from? Well it turns out that her cousin in Zamboanga had been heavily into weightlifting and she naturally took a liking to the sport at 12 years old where she started lifting homemade barbells made with cement weights. Over the years she has represented the country competing and winning medals in the Asian Games, South East Asian games and other international competitions. She competed in the Beijing 2008 Olympics, and the London 2012 Olympics but didn’t come close to a medal.
18 months ago, she nearly quit weightlifting but then decided to take on a new coach and rededicate herself to the sport. This was clearly a decision that has paid off handsomely.
If you didn’t see the actual competition, look it up on Youtube and you can catch the highlights. It’s well worth it. In the snatch event, Diaz lifted 88kg to put herself in 6th place. Then in the clean and jerk, she cleared 111 kg in her rst attempt and came back out to lift 112 kg in her second attempt
(over twice her body weight!) That nal lift secured Diaz the sliver.
I watched the event with my 20 year old daughter who herself is an athlete. As you can imagine I’ve seen a lot of sports in my day, but Diaz’s silver was one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time in sport. My daughter and I were dancing around the living around high ving each other and proclaiming Hidilyn Diaz as our new hero.
Of course we were delighted for the Philippines but there was much more to it than just long overdue success for the country in international sport. And I’m not even sure most Filipinos caught the signi cance of what had just happened.
It’s no secret that training to be an Olympic athlete is hardly picnic in the Philippines. There is a Philippine Olympic committee but athletes in this country pretty much live and train in obscurity and scrounge to get by. As a member of the Philippine team, Diaz was supposedly receiving P40,000 per month to train and live, hardly a princely sum for an athlete preparing to go up against the best in the world. Before Rio, there were no sponsors knocking on her door, very few if no reporters following her around. This is a country that adores basketball. But weightlifting? And by a Filipina no less? Most Filipinos probably had no idea that the Philippines had weightlifters, especially a woman.
And this is precisely what made Diaz’ accomplishment in Rio so special. Even while her new found fans take sel es with the siliver medalist as she tours the country, the reality is that most people probably can’t fathom what it is she even does on a daily basis. Or even if they do, they probably don’t approve.
I can just hear the ladies, and perhaps more than a few men, whispering; ‘A woman lifting weights? Why would you want to have muscles? That’s not what a typical Filipina should do’.
Ah yes, the “typical” Filipina, the aspirational demure beauty queen heavily propagated daily in the local media and advertising. That Filipina strives to be pretty, thin and, of course, white. And it’s not a standard you even have to work hard at reaching. You can achieve your dreams of being the perfect Filipina by having lipo suction, using chemical pills with cryptically creepy names like Lessofat, and slathering
on a some lotion that destroys your natural skin tone but makes you look “healthy white.”
Muscles? They are for men. In these parts women are supposed to be soft and demure. If a woman is going to exercise, it must be because she wants to lose weight.
My daughter seemed to take special pride in Diaz’ accomplishment because, as an athlete, she often hears the ridiculous statements coming from the guys when she goes to the gym to lift here in the Philippines. My daughter, who is a proud American-Filipina, born and bred here, plays competitive soccer in her school in the US and uses weight training to help her strength conditioning and muscle resilience. But it seems very few Filipino guys think it’s appropriate for a girl to be lifting weights.
On her way back to college in the States in mid-August, my daughter knew I was going to write a column about Diaz and sent me an email with her thoughts.
“Every single time I am in the gym or I tell people I am going to the gym to lift,” she wrote, “I hear comments like, “why are you lifting weights? Your muscles will get bigger,” or “wow haven’t seen you in so long, you gained weight.
“In the last 3 years I’ve learned how to lift weights at school in the U.S. Not only has this helped me become tter and stronger for soccer but it has also reduced my chances of getting injured. As I have tried to maintain my weightlifting program in the Philippines in the summers, I have often encountered misogynistic, stupid, and backward minded comments coming my way. I hate going to the gym in the Philippines.
“For a lot of people in the Philippines, especially women, the only purpose of running is for losing weight. Of course that is a valid reason, but it’s disappointing that it’s never just an activity to make yourself feel better, or it’s not just an activity that you do for fun with your friends.
“Before Hidilyn won this medal, many Filipinos probably did not even know weightlifting was an Olympic sport, or better yet a sport that Filipina women participated in. Not only did she disprove the mentality that all Filipina women should look skinny, but she showed the Philippines that Filipinos have the potential to be great at any sport, especially with the right attitude and support.”
Indeed if there was ever a proper role model for Filipinas to look up to, Diaz ts that ideal to a “T.” Here is a young woman who came from nothing, worked and trained religiously but in obscurity, sacri ced, had some success that few noticed, and suffered plenty of defeat, pain and doubts. But she persevered and kept working at her craft, and ascended to the mountain top in the biggest sporting event in the world in a sport nearly unheard of for girls in her country.
My favorite picture of Diaz came in her second to last lift and spoke volumes about this amazing Filipina. She picks up the bar, which holds twice her body weight, and brings it up to her chest. She then stands up with this impossible weight, which now rests on her chest, as she prepares to attempt to jerk the bar overhead. For a moment she composes herself, her thick muscular body bulging, her strong face a mixture of strain and focus and you can just feel that she is carrying the hopes and dreams and struggles of each and every Filipina past, present and future.
Then, in a ash of awesome power and well-honed technique, she pushes the bar over her head, holds it there until the buzzer signaling a successful lift rings in the arena. She drops the bar down as the crowd erupts. She ashes that one-of-a- kind Filipina smile and jumps into the arms of her coach.
Moments later, with her silver medal in hand, and tears streaming down her face, Hidilyn Diaz has just rede ned what it means to be a woman in Philippine society.
She’s a Filipina with power, strength and yes, muscles. And she’s now a national hero.