Year in Review 2016: Hidilyn Diaz lifts the country to Olympic glory

December 28, 2016

by: Carlo Pamintuan

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(Editor’s note: Sports5.ph looks back at the top sports moments of 2016 with our Year in Review yearender series. The good, the bad, the ugly – it’s all here. Thanks for reading us and we hope you enjoyed our 2016 editorial content. Here’s to an exciting 2017!)

I still vividly remember the moment when Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco won a silver medal in the light-flyweight category of the boxing competitions in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

At 10 years of age, it was way past my bed time but my dad sweet-talked my mother into allowing me to stay up a little late. The Philippines has never won a gold medal in the Olympic Games and Velasco had a really good shot at it. The 5-foot-2 boxer defeated foes from Taiwan, Cuba, Morocco, and Spain either by stoppage or by double-digit leads in scoring.

The fight was shown live on PTV-4 at 11 pm and me and my father were expecting a coronation.

“And Mansueto has won the gold!” shouted Ron Delos Reyes who was on the call, his voice trembling. He believed it. We did too. But the scored read 19-6 in favor of Petrov Bujilov from Bulgaria even if it looked like Velasco connected with the better shots.

Even if I was disappointed with the result, I was hopeful with the result. Velasco’s brother Roel won a bronze in 1992. With the silver in 1996, it looked like the Philippines would win the elusive gold in the near future.

I never would have imagined it would take us 20 years to win another medal in the Olympics Games. I also never expected to be there, well in this case, there-ish, to witness it.

Most Filipinos always thought that the Olympic Gold would come from boxing for good reason. The country has always had great boxers and they only needed a good draw to have a shot at a deep run. But a Filipina weightlifter? That’s an unlikely source for a medal.

However, when the 2016 Rio Olympics rolled around, it was apparent that the country would finally break its Olympic medal drought, it would be Hidilyn Diaz who would do it.

In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a 17-year-old Diaz lifted 85-kg in snatch and 107-kg in clean and jerk for a 192-kg total. It was far from a podium finish as she landed in the 11th spot out of 12 competitors but it was an inspiring debut for the wild card entry.

In the 2012 London Olympics, Diaz aimed to break her personal bests and finish higher than the last time. She cleared 97-kg in snatch during her third try but she failed to lift 118-kg in clean and jerk three times.

It was a crossroads moment for Diaz who had to make a decision. Either that would be the end of her Olympic campaign or she’ll do something drastically different from before to give herself a better shot at winning. When she decided to continue, she knew exactly what to do. She had to go down to a lower weight division.

“Bale gusto ko lang talaga gawin is to beat my personal bests nung sa 58 (kg) pa ako,” Diaz told me after the flag ceremony at the Athlete’s Village in Rio De Janeiro. “Yung medal, bahala na kung makuha.”

A few moments earlier, she stood in front of the Philippine flag as the national anthem played. Diaz was on the verge of tears, still affected by the moment even if it was her third time to experience it.

“Hindi naman kasi nagbabago yung feeling. Nakaka-proud talaga pag naririnig ko yung Lupang Hinirang sa Olympics.”

Diaz knew that lifting equal to or over her personal bests at the 58-kg category would be enough for at least a bronze in the lower weight division. However, she refused to put herself in that kind of situation. All she had to do was beat herself. Whatever happens to everything around her is immaterial.

Her 88-kg lift in snatch was far from her personal best. It was also far from topping the division as it was only good for the fifth spot behind China’s Li Yajun who set a new Olympic record by lifting 101-kg.

Diaz looked so much better in clean and jerk where she struggled four years ago. After she cleared 112-kg on her second lift, it looked like she was already en route to a bronze medal.

However, as fate would have it, the Chinese coaches committed a colossal mistake as their hunger for Olympic records caused them to over-exert their athlete and with Li’s failure to clear 126-kg in her third try at clean and jerk, Diaz earned for herself a silver.

As a part of the crew beaming the Olympics to different Asian countries, it was my job to stay in the media center at all times in case there’s a need for commentary. Because of the nature of my job, I could not go to the weightlifting venue but I settled for the next best thing which was a clean feed to our tiny office where I watched TV5’s small contingent to the games.

Truth be told, I was already drafting my article after her second clean and jerk lift but the silver was a happy surprise.

The entire country was on a high. It was the first Olympic medal in 20 years, the first non-boxing medal since 1936, and the first Olympic medal from a Filipina and in weightlifting.

Diaz got everything she deserved as reward. A new house, a street named after her, TV specials, countless interviews, and everything in between.

However, even the sweet taste of this precious victory did not last long. A few months after Diaz’s victory, there was a power struggle in the Philippine Olympic Committee.

After weeks of allegations, threats, and an election, the result was status quo.

The silver medal Diaz won in Rio should be celebrated. However, as usual, the victory was a achieved despite of and not because of the “help” of the powers-that-be.

Philippine sports may be in status quo but we cannot simply accept the possibility that it might take us 20 years again for an Olympic medal. There are athletes like Hidilyn Diaz who are willing and able to represent the country in the highest form of athletic competition. We can’t allow them to slip away simply because we’re not looking hard enough.

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