By Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY (IDN) — As the Paralympics begin in Tokyo—a celebration of the athletics prowess of the “differently-abled”—it will be appropriate to look at how the Tokyo Olympic Games that concluded on August 8 empowered the “economically disabled” athletes from the Philippines—a Southeast Asian country not well-known for its sporting prowess except for the legendary boxer Manny Pacquiao, whose own story is a great rag to riches one.
When the diminutive Filipino weightlifter (1.58 meter tall and 58 kg weight) Hidilyn Diaz lifted 125 kg setting a new Olympic record to win gold in the 55kg category in women’s weightlifting in Tokyo, she became Philippines’ first-ever gold medallist and almost overnight she became a multimillionaire with cash and property been presented to her by the government and corporate sector.
“She literally and figuratively lifted the Philippines tonight” Development Communication Professor, Shiella Balbutin from Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan in Mindanoa posted in her Facebook page. Since her golden lift, she has transformed from a “national security risk” to a “national hero”. Diaz was named in a controversial “matrix” of people plotting to overthrow President Rodrigo Duterte in 2019, and she moved to Malaysia with her Chinese coach in 2020 to train for the Olympics supposedly in fear for her life. She trained for more than a year in a makeshift gym at the backyard of a house rented from a Muslim family.
But, after her Olympic victory, Diaz who is employed by the Philippines Airforce was promoted from sergeant to staff sergeant, and President Duterte in a one-to-one virtual meeting awarded her a house and lot in her hometown Zamboanga and 3 million Pesos (USD 60,000) cash from the President’s own funds. “Let bygones be bygones,” the president was reported to have told Diaz. A day earlier, Philippines national congress had voted to create a Congress Medal of Excellence with its first recipient being Diaz.
With over 50 million Pesos (USD 1 million) in cash and grants of land and condominiums, Diaz’s family has become recipients of an economic windfall they never imagined. The 30-year-old Diaz is the fifth of six children to a father who was tricycle driver before becoming a farmer and a fisherman, and a mother who did casual labouring to feed the family. After her gold medal lift, a property developer affiliated with real estate tycoon Andrew Tan, offered Diaz a condominium, valued at 14 million pesos, in Metropolitan Manila and Chinese automaker Beiqi Foton Motor said it will provide her with a 13-seat van for family trips. Diaz’s head coach Gao Kaiwen is a Chinese national.
A week after Diaz’s win, Philippines won two silver and one bronze medal in Boxing making this the biggest medal haul for the Philippines in 97 years of participation in the Olympics. All three of them came from the island of Mindanao as well, for long the most neglected part of the Philippines, before Davao city mayor Duterte won the presidency in 2016 and brought national attention to Mindanao by giving his press conferences in Davao and not in Manila.
Diaz’s win has also turned national attention on Zamboanga city, Diaz’s hometown, which had a reputation of being a troublesome part of the Philippines, because it only gets into national news when there are attacks by Abu Sayyaf, the local affiliate of the Islamic State terror group. Lot of this terror has been attributed to economic deprivations in the region. Two of the medal-winning boxers were also from Zamboanga city, the women’s featherweight silver medallist Nesthy Petecio and men’s middleweight bronze medallist Eumir Marcial. Carlo Paalam, who won the men’s flyweight silver medal also came from Mindanao Island.
“For the four Mindanao Olympic medallists, there was clearly no lack of motivation. They all wanted to make the country and their families proud, so a victory always hits home. And of course, there’s that long time hope that sports could be their ticket out of poverty,” noted Jasmine Payo, sports editor of popular online news portal Rappler.
The government is mandated to give 10 million Pesos (USD 200,000) to an Olympic gold medallist, 5 million Pesos to an Olympic silver medallist, and 2 million Pesos to an Olympic bronze medallist under the National Athletes and Coaches Benefits and Incentives Act. For winning the Olympic silver medal, President Duterte gave an additional 2 million Pesos cash reward to Petecio and Paalam.
In addition, Philippine Olympic Committee President Bambol Tolentino announced in a news conference on August 8 those additional monetary incentives will be given to the four Filipino Olympic medallists, sourced from the savings of the organization. Tolentino also pledged his personal rewards of a house and lot each in Tagaytay (scenic area south of Manila) to Paalam, Petecio, and Marcial. He earlier made the same pledge to Diaz. “This is for them to share with their families,” said Tolentino.
All the medallists came from humble backgrounds from the impoverished island of Mindanao. Marcial as a reservist member of the Philippines Air Force reportedly receives a small monthly stipend of 30,000 pesos (USD 600) a month as a reservist. Which he sends to his family to raise 5 children. His mother has used the money also to set up a small store called “Emir Store’ in a popular street corner to help the family.
The Tokyo Olympics silver medals have been made with recycled electronic devices, thus an emotional Palaam, holding his medal has told the Philippines media after returning home: “This medal symbolizes my life. I was a scavenger before and this medal was made from broken gadgets”
Petecio who grew up in Davao also comes from a poor family—her father was a farmer while her mother is a housewife. At a young age, she and her siblings picked up chicken drops to sell as manure just to earn money to feed themselves. In an interview with the Go Hard Girls podcast, Petecio talked about the difficulties of growing up in an underprivileged environment.
“During that time, we really had nothing, and we would just borrow money to be able to buy our food,” she said in her native tongue. “So, what we would do was join inter-barangay (community) competitions and we would join because we knew, win, or lose, we would get meals”. It was boxing that paved way for her to be able to attend Rizal Technological University. A lesbian, she has dedicated her medal to the LGBT community.
Diaz told Rappler that the success of the Filipino athletes is due to grassroots sports development programs that are funded and promoted by Local Government Units (LGU). She is critical of the government in Manila and has said that she found it very difficult to get funds to set up her team to prepare for her medal bid in Tokyo. “Filipino athletes (need funds) not just when they’re competing, but also when they’re preparing” says Diaz. “The program of an LGU matters to the athletes. I know Zamboanga City has a good LGU project because they’ve now produced three Olympic medallists”.
Marcial also got discovered by slugging it out in local bouts as a young boy, and as a pre-teen Paalam similarly joined weekly matches in his local community in Cagayan de Oro fighting at the local “Boxing at the Park.” “We are encouraged by this. We will produce more Carlo Paalams,” says Cagayan de Oro Mayor Oscar Moreno, whose local boxing program turned into a launching pad for several boxers from the province.
“As the much-deserved cash incentives and rewards continue to pour in for the four Filipino sport heroes, their shiny Olympic medals have truly been symbolic of how they’ve turned their lives around from their humble beginnings in Mindanao,” notes Payo. [IDN-InDepthNews – 22 August 2021]
Photo: Hidilyn Diaz with her gold medal in Tokyo Olympics 2020. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
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