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Anatomy of Philippines’ first Olympic gold medal

The Philippines’ first Olympic gold medal, in a sport that is not popular in the Philippines, did not happen by accident. It was a journey that began three decades ago in Barangay Mampang, Zamboanga City. Here, exceptional talent, visionary leadership, and an audacious grassroots program converged to give Hidilyn Diaz the boost she needed early in her career.

BY ATOM ARAULLO October 31, 2021, https://pcij.org/article/7369/anatomy-of-philippines-first-olympic-gold-meda

It seems fitting that our enduring image of Tokyo 2020 is that of weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, arms above her shoulders, elbows locked, body taut, lifting the unbearable weight of nearly a century of national disappointment. And then a moment later, bent forward, hands clasped tight against her chest, screaming, realizing she has done it, a nation weeping for joy with her back home. 

The battle for gold was down to her last lift. When she stepped up to the stage, the record for the women’s 55 kilogram division had already been broken three times in quick succession. Diaz herself held that record for all of three minutes when she carried 124 kg in the clean and jerk, before her formidable Chinese rival, who had never placed anything other than first in her competition history, broke it again after lifting 126 kg. Now, Diaz had to carry a kilogram more, a weight she had never conquered previously, whether in contest or practice. 

Diaz gripped the bar and took position, uttering her competition mantra again. “Chest out. Deadlift. One motion.”

The weight seemed to float from the floor as Diaz racked it onto her shoulders. Visibly at her limit, Diaz summoned all of her strength to stand up from her squat.

“She has the clean, now she needs the jerk,” the TV commentator said. 

With a look of absolute determination, Diaz drove the weight overhead and dropped under it, splitting low to the ground. Her entire body quivered. The bar tipped slightly to the left. The earth moved. But Diaz, a veteran of four Olympics, was not going to let this moment slip from her already torn and bleeding fingers. 

She pushed her legs together and straightened her body. One one thousand, two one thousand. History. 

It was the Philippines’s first gold medal in the prestigious contest in almost 100 years of trying.  For the first time in a medal event, the sun and three stars rose above all colors, and the Lupang Hinirang soared in the halls of the Olympics. Diaz, a sergeant at the Philippine Air Force, held back tears as she saluted the flag, her hand wrapped in tape. 

“I couldn’t believe it. I did it despite all the pressure, all the expectations, and against very strong rivals,” Diaz said.

As superlatives swirled following Diaz’s win, it was her heartbroken nemesis who paid her the ultimate compliment. “I really respect Diaz as an opponent because she did the best she could, in fact better than that, and that is the ultimate,” silver medalist Liao Quiyun said.

One gold medal from Tokyo would’ve been enough to juice “Pinoy Pride” for weeks to come, but our athletes were not done yet. It was the turn of our scrappy boxers to tantalize, fighting their way to three more podium finishes: a silver each for Nesthy Petecio and Carlo Paalam, and a bronze for Eumir Marcial. 

By the end of the games, it was our winningest Olympics yet, surpassing the three bronze medals the Philippines won way back in 1932.

 Philippine sports on the world stage 

Since the first modern games in 1896, the Olympics has come to be recognized as the world’s foremost sporting event. More than 200 nations (and recently, a refugee team) participate in the games, with summer and winter editions alternating every two years.

The Philippines has not had much success in these games. The country’s best and most admired athletes repeatedly fell short of the ultimate prize for decades. This was understood and rationalized with a collective shrug. After all, we were competing against the might and resources of wealthier countries. We watched with awe and no small amount of envy as powerhouse nations like the US, UK, China, Germany and Russia cleaned it up year after year. Filipinos were underdogs, so we embraced it, sequestering “puso” or “heart” as our unofficial battle cry.

Not everything is about winning, however. The best-known architect of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, once said: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” An overemphasis on victory for its own sake may lead to a skewed, even toxic approach to sport.

Even so, any serious athlete will testify that they play to win. The pursuit of excellence is integral to sport, and winning is a validation of the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice required to get better and eventually compete with the best.

In some ways, the Philippines had a head start. We first joined the Olympics in the 1924 Paris Games, sending David Nepomuceno to compete in the 100-meter and 200-meter dash. This was 24 years ahead of any other Southeast Asian country, with Myanmar joining the Olympics at the post-World War 2 London Games in 1948. By then, the Philippines had already snagged five bronze medals in three consecutive games, with wins in athletics, swimming, and boxing. 

It would take another 80 years for the Philippines to win its next five medals: three silvers and two bronzes. In that time, neighbors Thailand and Indonesia had already won multiple golds, while Vietnam and Singapore earned their first gold medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The Philippines had fallen behind.

Tracking our delegation size over time reveals a similar story. Qualifying for the Olympics is an achievement in itself because athletes have to rank among the best in the world in a series of sanctioned, international events in order to compete. 

From a single representative in 1924, the Philippine delegation grew steadily until the 1964 Tokyo Games, where we sent our biggest contingent of 66 athletes. Since then, that number has gone down. The biggest drop happened after the 1972 Games, in part because we haven’t qualified for basketball since, an event with 10 to 12 players to a team. In London 2012, we sent a lean delegation of 11 athletes, our smallest since 1932.

The decline of Philippine sports is even clearer in the Asian Games. The country’s four best performances came in four consecutive competitions from 1954 to 1966. The Philippines finished second behind Japan in the 1958 and 1962 editions. From then on, our medal haul nosedived despite competing in more events. We finished 22nd out of 37 nations in 2014, and improved slightly to 19th in 2018.

 Why do some countries win more medals than others? 

Many studies have explored the relationship between key national characteristics and Olympic success. Two of the most frequently cited factors are population and wealth. The logic behind this is intuitive. A larger population means a larger pool from which to recruit and develop talent. Meanwhile, athletes from richer countries would likely have the advantage of better facilities and equipment, while a higher standard of living improves general fitness and opportunities to participate in sport.

To get a glimpse of these connections, we examined the results of the recent Tokyo Olympics and ranked countries in terms of total medals won.

Right off the bat, it was clear that considering population alone did not work as a predictor of Olympic success. If population were the only feature that mattered, China, India, US, Indonesia and Pakistan would have been in the top five of the Games, while the Philippines would rank 13th. Only China and US were in the top five, the Philippines ranked 47th-59th, and Pakistan did not even win a single medal.

Plotting the medal tally against GDP per capita with bubbles indicating population size was a little more useful. We considered the top 30 countries in our analysis, and also included Asean nations to zoom in on the performance of the region.

Here, we can see that the higher the GDP per capita of a country, the more medals they won. Even so, there were many exceptions. Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway have been winning less medals compared with nations with comparable per capita incomes (although it’s worth noting that Switzerland, Sweden, and Norway consistently ranked among the top 10 at the Winter Olympics). Among Asean nations, a conspicuous outlier is Singapore, which has one of the lowest medal tallies of countries in the higher GDP per capita range. 

Considering population size, some of these deviations can be partially explained. Singapore only has a population of approximately 5.8 million people. This is well below the median of the top 20 countries in the Olympics, about 49 million. Similarly, Switzerland (8.7 million) Denmark (6.8 million), Sweden (10.1 million), and Norway (5.4 million) all have comparatively smaller populations.

Still, this is clearly not the entire picture. With only a slightly bigger population, Cuba, a nation of 11.3 million people, won two more total medals and four more golds than Switzerland, despite having a GDP per capita one tenth the size. Wealth and population alone also cannot account for the outsized performance of countries like China, Russia, and Ukraine. Kenya, which specializes in middle- to long-distance running, is a particular overachiever at the Summer Games. It managed to win four gold medals, four silvers, and two bronzes in Tokyo 2020 despite having a GDP per capita and population that were both abo

In their 2015 book “Successful Elite Sport Policies,” authors Veerle De Bosscher, Simon Shibil, and Hans Westerbeek revealed that the three most significant macro-level factors for predicting Olympics success were wealth, population, and a third determinant – current or former communism – that is to say, the presence or earlier presence of a socialist regime. Using regression analysis, a form of predictive modelling that finds the causal relationship between variables, they found that just those three factors predicted medal-winning success by 41.6 percent. Older studies placed the influence slightly higher, hovering at about 50 percent.

These results are encouraging for countries like the Philippines with plenty of ambition. We may have the relative advantage of population, but we are lagging in terms of wealth, and that may take a longer time to change. But when it comes to elite sports, studies suggest that literally half the battle involves other factors. Those other factors are the subject of numerous inquiries, too, with population grip strength, and radios per capita among some of the more intriguing predictors that have been investigated. 

But the most self-evident of the factors that may contribute to international sporting success is an effective national sports program. And that begins at the grassroots. 

Diaz’s story is proof. 

 Sports at the grassroots 

Our first Olympic gold medal, in a sport that is not popular in the Philippines, did not happen by accident. It was a journey that began 30 years ago in Barangay Mampang, Zamboanga City. Here, exceptional talent, visionary leadership, and an audacious grassroots program converged to give Diaz the boost she needed early in her career.

By now, Diaz’s modest beginnings as a young athlete from the province is legendary. The fifth of six children of a tricycle driver turned farmer and a stay-at-home mother, Hidilyn and her siblings grew up with very little. Nevertheless, sports was always part of their life. Hidilyn first learned about weightlifting from her older cousins, her competitive streak revealing itself from an early age.

“My cousins always beat me in other sports. I wasn’t good at them. I liked weightlifting because I was better at it,” Diaz said.

Hidilyn’s budding interest in the sport came at an opportune time. Former national weightlifting athlete Elbert Atilano had just become the director of the Institute of Human Kinetics at the Universidad de Zamboanga (UZ), then called the Zamboanga A.E. Colleges, a non-sectarian private school. He had high ambitions for the sport in his hometown, shifting to coaching full-time almost two decades earlier after realizing the need to upgrade the skills and knowledge of local coaches.

With Atilano as head weightlifting coach, the school dominated national competitions for several years, even beating the powerhouse team of the Armed Forces consistently. The school’s former president Dr. Arturo Eustaquio, Atilano’s boss, jokingly said that he was growing sick of all the national championship titles.

“He (Eustaquio) told us he wanted an international title. He wanted an Olympic gold,” Atilano recalled, laughing. “I told him, ‘If that’s what you want, you should send me abroad to train.’ There were no weightlifting coaches in the Philippines then.”

Eustaquio called his bluff. Soon, Atilano was in Indonesia for an intensive, three-month program under the Asian Sports Institute that cost P300,000, a hefty sum back in 1993.

“The school covered the costs. They invested. I learned scientific sports training,” Atilano said.

High from his experience, he made a bold prediction: “The first Olympic gold will come from weightlifting in Zamboanga City.”

Atilano immediately started going to work. One of his first moves was looking for younger talent. Because of his international exposure, he learned that world-class weightlifters began training as young as 8 years old. Filipino weightlifters back then typically started training in high school; too late in the game. Atilano convinced UZ to make an extension program to cater to youngsters who weren’t enrolled in the school. With the blessing of the Department of Education, he started training elementary students. 

The program had been around for a few years when Diaz, who was 10 years old at the time, found that she had a knack for lifting. She began playing around with makeshift barbells made from ipil-ipil wood fitted with mag wheels or poured concrete. Her first coach was her cousin Catalino Diaz, who was already part of the UZ extension program. Catalino decided to bring her to Atilano. The coach was looking for female lifters to train, another strategy to succeed internationally, but few girls were interested in the sport.

Atilano recalls meeting Diaz for the first time. 

“I tested her. She was structurally fit for weightlifting. She could do full squats, and you could see her arms really lock, like the letter V,” Atilano said. “I said, ‘Yeah, she’s qualified.’”

At first, Atilano didn’t set high expectations for Diaz. He told her cousin to give Hidilyn the beginners program, expecting her to drop out within a week or two. Instead, Diaz did not miss a single training session for six months.

“She was never absent. She was really interested,” Atilano said.

But it wasn’t just determination that Diaz needed to keep up with training. To get to a local gym some 15 kilometers from home, she had to cough up P50 for the roundtrip fare, a considerable sum given the modest income of her family. Diaz resorted to selling vegetables and fish, and washing jeepneys to earn extra money. Seeing her struggle, Atilano eventually gave Diaz her own Olympic bar and weights so she could train in their backyard.  

There were gender stereotypes to deal with as well. Hidilyn’s own mother, albeit supportive, used to warn her about bulking up due to weightlifting. It wasn’t lady-like, she said, and could drive away potential suitors.

“People said, ‘Don’t do that, that’s for men. Women should stay at home.’ They’ll say you’re an Amazon, a macho person. I got embarrassed. My mother told me no one would like me if I did weightlifting. So growing up as a girl I was insecure with my muscles,” Diaz said. 

But through it all, she persevered, in no small part because of the support and mentorship of Atilano and his wife Cecilia, a former weightlifter and Southeast Asian Games medalist herself. Diaz had found a role model and a viable path to success.

Hidilyn was soon offered a high school scholarship at UZ. Soon, she was blazing through local and national competitions. The local government extended support, shouldering the cost of transportation, providing allowance, and supplying uniforms for out-of-town meets. At the tender age of 13, Diaz became a member of the national team.

Diaz still speaks highly of her city’s sports program. With fellow Zamboangeño Marcial taking home bronze in the last Summer Games, and high jumper Simeon Toribio snagging the country’s second medal, a bronze, in Munich back in 1932, the city now has four out of 14 Philippine Olympic medals to its name, the most for any municipality.

“There were many promising athletes there. They held annual summer games, where athletes hone their skills. On top of that, the Zamboanga city government supported the kids. They paid for water, shoes, clothes, cycling shorts — the complete set,” Diaz said.

Diaz deserves credit for fighting through adversity, but being born in a place with a functioning weightlifting program was the luck of the draw. The city had a bona fide weightlifting coach, a university that offered scholarships for weightlifting (one of only three in the country at the time), and a local government that supported its athletes.

But not all localities are the same. Sports journalist and political science lecturer Anthony Divinagracia said in an interview that grassroots sports development in the Philippines was uneven, and could rise and fall on the manna of local governments or worse, individual politicians.

“Our grassroots sports programs are very localized. They’re not coordinated at the national level, unlike in other countries,” explained Divinagracia. “There are local leaders who say, ‘We’re a small municipality with very limited funding. Instead of spending on sports, we’d rather spend on agriculture and housing.’ It’s (grassroots sports program) not prioritized.”

The Palarong Pambansa, organized by the Department of Education, is one mechanism to promote grassroots sports from the top. But the annual competition for student athletes has been plagued with problems, too, mostly stemming from a lack of support both from the national and local levels. A glance at the budget of the Palaro reveals that funding has largely been stagnant since 2015, dropping further in 2020 and 2021 presumably because of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, another national youth sports competition, Batang Pinoy, has not been held since 2018. Unlike the Palarong Pambansa, Batang Pinoy also involved out-of-school youth, further extending the reach of grassroots sports. It also had events like weightlifting that were not included in the Palaro. Hidilyn’s first competition ever was at the Batang Pinoy games held in Puerto Princesa in 2002.

 Ticket out of poverty 

But certain sports can thrive even with limited supervision. A beloved sports at the grassroots is boxing, with basketball perhaps its only rival in terms of popularity. This is especially true in central and southern Philippines, which has produced some of our finest boxers, the likes of which include Flash Elorde of Cebu, Onyok Velasco of Negros Occidental, and of course, Manny Pacquiao of General Santos City. Every single one of our Tokyo 2020 boxing  medalists hailed from Mindanao.

The prevalence of boxing in many parts of the country reveals an important reality. In impoverished areas, grassroots sports is a deeply socioeconomic phenomenon, seen as a way to improve one’s standing in life.

Marcial, Petecio, and Paalam famously joined local amateur matches as children, earning anything between P100 to P500 per fight. All born into poverty, the promise of financial reward was an important motivation for getting into sport.

Paalam, who moved from town to town in Mindanao with his family in search of greener pastures, had an exceptionally difficult childhood. As a boy, he had to hustle constantly to eat, diving for loose change flung by tourists at a pier, selling peanuts at a bus station, pilfering vegetables, and finally, picking garbage at the city dump in Cagayan de Oro after relocating there with his father. He experienced all this before turning 7.

On the way home from the landfill one day, barefoot, Carlo passed by the backyard of a neighbor who was training his son to box. Scared by what he saw, he tried to scuttle away into an alley, but was roped in by the neighbor for a little sparring session with his kid anyway. His boxing career had begun.

“I really didn’t like boxing at first. I was forced to wear gloves and fight the kid. He beat me up, but his father saw that I was fearless and I had the potential. That’s how I started,” Carlo recalled.

Soon he was joining every amateur contest he could, including “Boxing in the Park,” a popular event held in the city every week. With his first-prize money, Carlo bought his family some rice and a P3 ice cream stick for himself, the first time he could ever afford the sweet treat. 

Afraid he would be told to stop, he lied to his father Rio about the source of the money in the beginning, saying it all came from working at the landfill. But Rio eventually found out, catching his son in action at one of his matches. A neighbor had told him a certain “Paalam” was fighting at the boxing tournament, and that Paalam was certainly not him. 

Stepping down from the ring after earning a victory, aware that his father had been watching, Carlo asked for his blessing right then and there. Rio relented. 

“I told him, ‘Let me do it, Papa. I’ll take care of myself and I’ll bring us out of poverty,’” Carlo said.

Officials would eventually take Carlo under their wings, giving him a slot in a local boxing program. He was given a monthly allowance of P500-P1,000, board and lodging, and support for schooling. Grassroots boxing has endured under this system for decades, giving rise to an ecosystem of benefactors, coaches, athletes, and administrators at the local level.

Local politicians and businessmen, especially in the Visayas and Mindanao, often support “stables” of athletes who compete in local competitions, in the hopes of finding the next breakout star, Divinagracia said.

But this is unsustainable, he added. Without deliberate support and coordination on a national level, the boxing model is hard to replicate in other disciplines, especially emerging ones. Often, patronage becomes the main driver of grassroots sports. This ties the system to the political fortunes of local executives who seem to use sports as a way of boosting their profiles.

Without an institutionalized support system, many young athletes who risk everything also fall through the cracks. 

“Aspiring kids see their boxing idols live good lives, Manny Pacquiao for example, when he turned professional. Some stop going to school and their parents even encourage that. But not everyone who turns pro is lucky. Others slide deeper into poverty or even die,” Divinagracia said.

One way of widening support at the grassroots is through athletic scholarships. After scouting for stand-out talent in youth competitions, the transition to being a subsidized member of the national team is not always immediate or guaranteed. In the meantime, athletes need support, since many of them come from underprivileged backgrounds. 

Athletic scholarships fill that gap, a way of sustaining young athletes as they continue their progress into elite competitors. But these are not easy to come by. Competition is stiff, funding for less popular sports is limited, and schools offering scholarships are concentrated in Metro Manila and other major urban areas. Crucially, a majority of higher education institutions are also private, a staggering 88 percent, putting them beyond the reach of public funding. 

“Athletes who are scouted by good high schools or colleges are lucky. They get free food, their needs are paid for, they get scholarships and all that. But not all get to that level. So what happens to you?” Divinagracia said.

Although finding the best talent naturally involves a culling process, a comprehensive basic sports program places adequate safety nets for those who don’t go all the way. Providing quality, continuing education for young athletes makes a huge difference in protecting them, and also encourages a wider population to give sports a try. 

While grassroots sports is the starting point for developing elite competitors, this is not its only purpose. In fact, it may not even be its most important function. Sports is a social investment. It promotes the holistic development of the youth, encourages peace and understanding among diverse communities, and instills important values like discipline, excellence, teamwork, sportsmanship, fair play, and solidarity. 

And yes, it is also an opportunity to rise out of poverty, even if you don’t reach the pinnacle of success. As Diaz explained, the beginning of her sports career was about necessity.

“The truth is, I went into sports because the school gave me a scholarship. I wanted to finish school. That was it. I didn’t even know the Olympics existed.”

Diaz would learn about this most prestigious sporting event soon enough. Her long road to victory was only beginning.END

 Part 2 of this report will be published on November 7. 

The following contributed to this report: Voltaire Tupaz (interviews), Bong Santisteban and Elyzsa Jenwel Olavydez (research), and Czarina Jollyn Bastasa (visualization).

Illustration: Jose Luigi Almuena/PCIJ

ut half of the Philippines’s.

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