In Tokyo 2020, Filipinos are no longer Olympic underdogs

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Despite many obstacles, and even in the middle of a pandemic, our athletes came home with the most successful haul in the nation’s history. Can the Philippine team still be considered the underdog?

On July 26, after 21 appearances in the Summer Olympics, the Philippines finally took home the elusive gold medal thanks to the heroic efforts of Hidilyn Diaz.

It wasn’t supposed to be the biggest highlight of the day — the final State of the Nation Address of President Rodrigo Duterte was slated to happen at 4 p.m.

Prior to that, our superstar skateboard athlete Margielyn Didal fought in the final rounds of the Women’s Street Skateboarding event. The 22-year-old finished seventh place, but not without leaving an impression on the world stage.

While Didal may have lost out to the podium finishers from Japan (13-year-old Gold Medalist Momiji Nishiya and 16-year-old Bronze Medalist Funa Nakayama) and Brazil (13-year-old Rayssa Leal), her personification of the Olympic spirit made more people tune in to the event making its debut appearance.

It was an impressive competition in more aspects than one — seeing them take leaps on their skateboard, attempting to land tricks in a street park, managing to smile and cheer each other on despite having Olympic medals at stake. And instead of just landing even the simplest tricks so that their scores would add up, they kept pushing for the difficult ones. For each trick landed, there were several other falls and splashes, but Didal trudged on, smiling and limping her way back up each time.

It was something refreshing, albeit familiar. A spirit unbroken, but without tangible victory. It didn’t take long until something that we’ve all gotten used to, something we’ve been conditioned to expect, was lifted off all our shoulders.

I’ve been watching the Olympics since 1996, when Atlanta hosted the quadrennial games. That was also the last where we won a medal prior to Diaz, with Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco losing to Daniel Petrov in such a controversial, heartbreaking fashion. It was so bad that sports scribes have still not gotten over it decades after, even after a movie was made a year after as part of catharsis. And, according to Velasco, he has not received the money he was promised two and a half decades ago.

It was always a crowning achievement for those who qualify for the Olympics, like how Taekwondo player Roberto Cruz won gold in the Asian qualifiers in 1999, but the world stage offers far too many wildcards and things beyond control. We’ve always had boxers or taekwondoins (or jins, as referred to in local circles) who make it near the medal rounds, but never through. I remember conversations on allowing professional boxers to compete in the Olympics, but the closest Manny Pacquiao ever got was being the flagbearer for the Beijing Olympics. That was because until 2016, boxers who turned pro weren’t allowed to compete in boxing.

Also part of that contingent was 17-year-old Hidilyn Diaz, gaining a wild card entry and becoming the first female weightlifter to don the national colors. A year prior, she brought home the bronze from the SEA Games held in Thailand. She finished with a total weight of 192 kg, missing her third attempt for Snatch at 90 kg, and her first attempt for Clean & Jerk for 102 kg. It was good for 11th place, which became tenth later on as the silver medalist from Russia was disqualified due to steroids.

Aside from Manny Pacquiao being halfway through his journey of becoming the only boxer to win titles in eight different weight divisions, and the overall victory when we hosted the 2005 SEA Games, the Philippines didn’t have much to celebrate internationally.

There were breakthroughs, but none as definite as what Diaz did on that fateful evening of July 26th. There’s the Miracle in Hanoi in 2010, and the lifting of the Korean Curse (that began with that painful 2002 Asian Games loss) in 2013, but though those were milestone victories, it wasn’t a championship that was brought home.

The weightlifting event is divided into two kinds of lifts: the Snatch and Clean & Jerk. The Snatch is lifting the weight in one continuous motion, and then standing motionless, with arms and legs extended and feet in line. The Clean & Jerk consists of two movements: lifting the weight to the chest, or clean, and lifting the barbell while extending the arms and legs, or jerk. The combined weight lifted will become one’s total score.

Snatch is Diaz’s favorite lift, and it being the first in sequence really sets the tone for the rest of her event. The 55 kg group had tight competition. As weights continued to increase, as did the tension between each competitor. She came in with confidence for this too, being second to the last and setting 94 kg as her first attempt. Previously, her best attempts for Snatch were 85 in Beijing, 97 in London, and 88 in Rio.

She succeeded with her attempts at 94 and 97 kg, which tied her with China’s Liao Quiyun. Uzbekistan’s Muattar Nabieva set the Olympic record at 98 kg, which Diaz was unable to beat when she attempted 99. But heading towards the next lift was looking good at this point.

It was in Clean & Jerk where she usually ran into trouble. In London, she was unable to record a successful attempt for 118 kg, even after three tries. While she won the silver in Rio, her heaviest lift was at 112 kg.

But she came in prepared, confident, and completely locked in during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. While five out of her eight competitors were unable to clear anything above 116 kg, it almost became a head-to-head matchup between Diaz and Liao. Liao’s first attempt: 118 kg. Success. Diaz’ first attempt: 119 kg. Success.

They went back and forth: Liao’s second attempt was good at 123 kg, which was also the only successful lift of Zulfiya Chinshanlo of Kazakhstan, the bronze medalist. Diaz answered back with 124 kg.

With one attempt remaining, Liao set the Olympic record at 126 kg, ending with a total weight of 223 kg, also an Olympic record. To beat her, Diaz would need to lift her personal best, 15 kilos heavier than she’s ever done in the Olympics.

It was one of those moments when one could just expect to be that close, and yet fall to a more formidable foe. Diaz wasn’t having any of it. With the weight of the Philippines on her shoulders, she mustered such strength unseen and unheard of. And with her triumphant scream, tears flowed–down her eyes, and perhaps everyone else’s.

By succeeding with the 127 kg lift, she also set an Olympic record for Clean & Jerk and a total weight of 224 kg.

I will always remember that night, when we had one of our best bets for that elusive first gold, and not being able to see her match on free TV, or any of their usual avenues. It was stuck on a pay-per-view channel, so people had to scramble for ways to watch it — using VPN and foreign accounts, quickly-passed-on streams found on social networking sites, or settling for updates via Twitter or the Olympics website.

It would be remembered more as Hidilyn Diaz Day, as that specific moment when it seemed we were underdogs no more.

Do a quick search and you will find plenty of results about our athletes and teams competing and being labeled as underdogs. Perhaps mostly because of the lack of support — needing to go public about missed allowances, or asking for private firms to augment what they are “provided.” Some even get entangled with dirty politics, just one of many unwelcome distractions.

But through these obstacles, and even in the middle of a pandemic, our athletes have come home with the most successful haul in the nation’s history — four medals, one more than the three bronzes from the 1932 Olympics held in Los Angeles.

And it’s not that the other three fell short. There has been a wider discussion among fans — athletes themselves, journalists from various beats, and sportswriters — on how words such as “fails,” “settles,” or anything else are used, because more than just the end result, so much more compelling stories have come to light about our athletes.

There’s been one thing in common with the three Boxing medalists — that they got into the sport to augment their family’s income. Petecio, along with her brother Norlan and sister Nicezza, all took up the sport as children, trained by their father Teodoro. Marcial’s cousin, Anthony, also represented the Philippines in the Asian Games for boxing. He was trained by his father, Eulalio, and competed in local competitions to earn his living. Similarly, it was what mangangalakal Carlo Paalam was discovered for, and what made him turn away from having to scavenge for scraps to sell.

Seeing the boxers go through each round (including Irish Magno, who bowed out in the Round of 16) through such elaborate game plans and schemes felt different from the previous campaigns. An Associated Press report even tipped Eumir Marcial as a favorite to win gold.

But it was the youngest of them all, the 23-year-old Carlo Paalam, who won over plenty of hearts and fans. His formula was the usual, quick and powerful, using his speed and good defense to wear out his taller opponents. When he beat the 2016 gold medalist Shakhobidin Zoirov of Uzbekistan in the quarterfinals, it felt similar to when Diaz completed her last lift.

Paalam is 5’4” tall. He competes in the flyweight division, where their allowed weight range is 48 to 52 kg. He is lighter than Petecio (a featherweight, 54-57kg at 5’2”), and way smaller than Marcial (a middleweight, 69-75 kg at 5’10”). What he lacks in these, he shows through his very visible heart. Each decision, he’s embraced with what is now a very memorable facial expression — one where you can see all the hardship he’s gone through, and how he got here, and how much he wants it.

Carlo Paalam at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

What I like about his story is that his coach, Elmer Pamisa, was there with him every step of the way. Pamisa has shared their story many times, that he discovered the son of a bakery helper and trained him to be part of the city’s youth team. When Pamisa returned from a competition in Armenia, Paalam was no longer boxing and back to scavenging. That became the turning point for the future Olympian.

All three of them did not get to win gold in Tokyo 2020. In their fourth matchup, Nesthy Petecio came up short against hometown bet Irie Sena and took home silver. Eumir Marcial had two abbreviated matches (one referee stoppage and a knockout) on his way to the quarterfinals, but bowed to Oleksandr Khyzhniak of Ukraine in the semifinals. He fought through a huge cut above his eye that he suffered through an accidental headbutt in the first round, but did not score enough to turn the judges in his favor, narrowly losing via split decision, 3-2.

Paalam was knocked down during the first round of the gold medal match, this time televised on free TV. It was one of those moments when you could feel that collective gasps and bated breaths through households, cheering on and wishing for an opportunity to keep fighting. He outlasted the standing eight count he was given and fought until the end of the third, which he won on all judges’ scorecards. He may have lost via split decision, 4-1, but it was something else.

Being in a generation that’s been spoiled with so many legendary, record-breaking athletes, finding specific ones to root for hasn’t been that hard. A couple of weeks ago, this article was supposed to be a piece about my favorite player, Chris Paul — a diminutive point guard who almost made it to the top but fell short once more. It was about my admiration of someone who wasn’t physically imposing, but had enough skills and wits to influence the game in his favor. He and the Phoenix Suns lost in the NBA Finals, which I felt was the closest he could ever get to that elusive NBA championship.

Roger Federer, who has always been my favorite athlete, because of how he makes everything so graceful and effortless, currently shares the record of 20 grand slams won with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (who can break that record in the US Open later this month). His time and reign is what led tennis to where it is now. He is my GOAT (Greatest of All Time) — but I will respect if anyone thinks the other two should be.

The same goes for Michael Jordan, who aside from being a winner on-court, allowed players of his stature to become brands themselves, paving the way for the likes of LeBron James to become billionaires even while they are still playing.

It isn’t always about winning, or who won the most and who did this or that.

For me, the biggest takeaway of the Olympics is seeing that Filipinos can be among those names. That for fans — both old and new — there would be new favorite athletes, and followers of wherever their careers take them. And now, we wouldn’t have to look outside to find those favorite athletes, because they’re here and they’re proudly ours.

For 21-year-old Gymnastics World Champion Carlos Yulo, his performance at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is a sign of greater things ahead.

The future shines ever brighter even for those who didn’t take home a medal. There’s the 20-year-old US Open Champion Yuka Saso, who finished ninth in Women’s Golf, 21-year-old Cris Nievarez who competed in the finals of Men’s Single Sculls in Rowing, 22-year-old Elreen Ann Ando who placed seventh in the 64kg group of Women’s Weightlifting, and 25-year old Ernest John Obiena who placed 11th in the Men’s Pole Vault in Athletics. For 21-year-old Gymnastics World Champion Carlos Yulo, it’s a sign of greater things. While he was unable to take home a medal for where he won in the World Championships (Floor Exercise), he managed to make it into the final of Vault, where he finished fourth place.

I am so excited to follow their careers, to see them get the recognition they deserve, and for them to keep reaping from the benefits and incentives that would be sent their way. When Tokyo decided to still push through despite concerns about variants and a worldwide resurgence of COVID-19 cases, it didn’t really feel that there would be much to be taken away from the two weeks of competition. But now, because of these athletes, their teams, and their coaches, there’s something we can forever hold on to — that at least in some way or form, some battles have been won.