Manila – The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be etched into the hearts and minds of countless Filipinos for generations to come.
After almost a century of participation in the Summer Games, the Southeast Asian country bagged its first-ever gold medal this year. What’s more, the Philippines also looks to be on track to win multiple medals for the first time in 89 years.
Four-time Philippine Olympian Hidilyn Diaz, 30, pulled off a stunning victory against reigning world champion Liao Qiuyun from China in the women’s 55-kilogram category for weightlifting. Although Diaz was a silver medalist at Rio five years ago, she was a relative underdog against her much more fancied Chinese rivals.
As astonishing as her victory is, what has made her feat even more poignant is its timing and the broader political circumstances.
Only hours before the Philippines’ first-ever Olympic gold, the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, delivered his final state of the nation address. The populist leader’s constitutionally mandated single, six-year term in office is expected to end by June next year.
The three-hourlong speech, characteristically laced with ad-lib segments and perfunctory commentaries, was among his most enervating. The aging leader seemed to struggle throughout his address, at times even blaming the teleprompter. Defiant in tone, Duterte’s remarks were an emphatic defense of his most controversial policies, including a scorched-earth war on drugs that has claimed thousands of lives.
He also tried to project toughness by criticizing foreign powers — from the United States and Canada to several Middle Eastern countries — for their historical role in the Philippines’ past. What was conspicuously absent in Duterte’s speech, however, was any criticism of China, which he repeatedly portrayed as a friendly and supportive ally.
The China angle
When it came to maritime disputes in the South China Sea, the president seemed to be at pains in defending his China-friendly diplomacy. Taunting critics who have called for a tougher stance against the East Asian power, Duterte warned that the Philippines would be massacred if it went to war with China over the maritime dispute.
In response, many online commentators lambasted Duterte on social media for his supposed lack of patriotic courage, with many describing the president as being subservient to Beijing.
Against this backdrop, Diaz’s Olympic victory came as something of a bombshell. A staff sergeant in the Philippines Air Force, Diaz has been vocal in her nationalist views, especially on the South China Sea disputes with China, making remarks that have placed her on a collision course with Duterte.
In addition, the fact that Diaz defeated a Chinese weightlifter to win an Olympic gold was a major talking point in the Philippines, as countless netizens shared images of the Philippines’ flag hoisted above the five-starred red flag of China. In the words of Diaz, who perhaps noticed the broader significance of her sporting victory, “I couldn’t believe I did it … at last I beat China.”
Putting Diaz’s sporting prowess aside for a minute, it’s worth highlighting the public challenges the weightlifter has faced in her efforts to compete at the Games. As an independent public figure who has a strong following on social media, she has experienced harassment on a number of occasions that could arguably be linked to her political convictions.
An awkward moment
Both Duterte and Diaz hail from the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, a lush region that has been racked by insurgencies and internecine conflict for decades. Throughout the country’s modern history, elites from “imperial Manila” and across the northern island of Luzon have often dominated the country’s affairs, from politics and economics to sports.
As a result, the ascent of Duterte and Diaz has marked a critical juncture in the history of the Philippines, as a growing number of Mindanaoans are playing decisive roles in the country’s public life. Diaz is the first gold medalist from Mindanao, while Duterte is the first president from the region.
Yet, their simultaneous rise to fame hasn’t led to an expected coalition between the two fellow Mindanaoans. If anything, they have found themselves on opposite sides of a brewing nationalist discourse: Duterte never stops praising China, while Diaz calls for the assertion of Philippine claims in the South China Sea.
The first sign of trouble came in mid-2019, when allies of the president placed Diaz alongside other well-known celebrities on a bizarre list — dubbed the “matrix” — that featured a network of conspirators who had allegedly plotted to oust Duterte from power.
The episode, which was ridiculed by the public, was incredibly traumatic for Diaz and her family, who faced a subsequent barrage of harassment from pro-Duterte trolls and fanatical supporters.
Top defense officials eventually intervened and questioned the validity of the list, which brought the episode to a close. By then, however, the damage had been done.
During this time, Diaz also lacked financial and logistical support from the government for her bid at Olympic gold, forcing her to turn to the private sector for support. Several Filipino-Chinese businessmen came to her aid, hiring a world-class Chinese coach to train Diaz in her promising bid for Olympic glory. As Diaz’s defeated opponent at the Games was a Chinese athlete, this unsurprisingly sparked a backlash in China.
Soon, however, an avalanche of people put their hands up to take credit for Diaz’s achievement at the Games. Pro-Duterte propagandists were quick to emphasize that Diaz’s medal came during the incumbent’s term, even if she was an Olympic silver medalist in 2016.
Meanwhile, the Chinese envoy in Manila quickly tried to portray Diaz’s success as being a reflection of the cooperation that existed between the two countries, even if the hiring of her Chinese coach had little to do with Beijing.
The Duterte administration has yet to comment on who compiled the list of conspirators that featured Diaz. And when the president spoke to the athlete upon her return from Tokyo, he apparently told her to “let bygones be bygones” while offering her a bonus that was apparently not tax-free.
The president is almost certainly aware that elections are just around the corner and has even stated that he was considering standing for the vice presidency.
Although Diaz said that she had forgiven her detractors, she didn’t pull any punches posting a video on Facebook in which she says that she would rather vote for “someone who is a winner, not someone with a loser mindset.”
Richard Javad Heydarian is a professorial chairholder in geopolitics at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines and author of, among others, “The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.”
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