Philippines’ first-ever gold medalist also winning cash, housing and other prizes
Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz won the first Olympic gold medal for the Philippines in nearly a century at the Tokyo Games this week.
The 30-year-old, who won gold in the women’s 55-kilogram category on Monday in her fourth Olympic appearance, has already been met with a multitude of well wishes.
When she landed in Manila Wednesday, she was applauded and greeted by military personnel waving Philippine flags and a banner that read "Gold at last!" at the airport.
President Rodrigo Duterte and his Cabinet members congratulated her by video. Roman Catholic church leaders, top business executives, movie celebrities and ordinary Filipinos have also expressed gratitude and congratulations.
And military chief of staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said Wednesday that Diaz, who is in the air force, has been promoted to the rank of staff sergeant "for bringing pride and glory to our country."
But a windfall of financial rewards awaits as well.
Philippine officials and business tycoons have offered more than 40 million pesos, which equates to about $800,000 in cash. Others have pledged a residential condominium unit in an upscale district, a vacation house in a resort city south of Manila, a new van and free gasoline, as well as free commercial flights for life.
But not even her historic medal can eclipse coronavirus protocols in a country grappling with continuing virus outbreaks and an economic crisis. Diaz was promptly whisked off to a hotel where she must quarantine for seven days now.
The Philippines has the second-largest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Southeast Asia. Lockdowns and quarantines caused the economy to plummet last year in the country’s worst post-war recession.
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Ahead of the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games, travel restrictions forced Diaz to undergo training for more than a year in Malaysia. But with her triumph, Diaz earned a place in the country’s "pantheon of legendary athletes," according to a Philippine Senate citation. She joins the ranks of a handful of Filipino sports celebrities who have earned international acclaim, led by boxer Manny Pacquiao, now a senator and a possible presidential contender in next year’s elections.
The Philippines has competed at every edition of the Summer Olympics since 1924 — except for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games — and has won three silver and seven bronze medals. Diaz won a silver medal in 2016, her country’s first appearance on an Olympic podium in 20 years.
Philippine TV networks have run tributes on Diaz, focusing on how she overcame poverty in her southern hometown of Zamboanga through sports. The fifth of six children of a motorcycle taxi driver, she had to carry containers of water for blocks to her house and haul vegetables to be sold in a public market, helping develop her muscles.
People saw her potential for weightlifting early but she was discouraged by others who told her the sport was reserved for men and that they could prevent her from getting pregnant.
But she persisted and won a local weightlifting competition, which served as her springboard to the Olympics.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.