BY TITO S. TALAO
TOKYO — In the suspense-filled breathless end, with everything on the line and an entire nation on knife’s edge as the XXXII Olympiad weightlifting crown came down to a final heave, the Philippines’ Hidilyn Diaz proved she was worth every ounce of her weight in gold.
Diaz, silver medalist in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, went to a heavier weight on her third and last lift in the 55kg category after the Chinese world record holder Quiyun Liao lifted 126 kilograms on their third attempt in the clean & jerk to go up by one kilogram overall.
Going for 127kgs, which would go down as an Olympic record and put her on top, Diaz loaded all her talent, experience and hard work to end the nation’s 97 years of fruitless campaign for a first-ever gold medal in the Games into one final lift and made history as fans of Team Philippines — from coaches, sports officials and even the media — erupted in joyous celebration late Monday at the Tokyo International Forum.
“Hindi ako makapaniwala, lalo na Olympic record pa,” said Diaz in a trembling voice before she was whisked off to the mixed zone interview.
“Nasorpresa ako na nagawa ko yon. Mga kababayan ko dyan sa Pilipinas, at mga prayer warriors ko, maraming salamat. Sa lahat ng sumoporta, nakayanan natin sa kabila ng maraming pagsubok.”
She shot two fists into the air and yelled in triumph even before the ‘good lift’ was announced.
Diaz tied with Liao at 97 kgs after the snatch category, a kilogram behind Uzbekistan’s Muattar Nabieva, who lifted 98kgs but imploded in the clean & jery after failing at 114 kgs and 117 kgs.
Kazakhstan’s Zulfiya Chinshanlo issued a momentary challenge after completing 123 kgs on her second attempt but ultimately withered in the heat of the duel between Diaz and Liao, both of whom raised the bar in breathless sequence.
The Chinese lifted 118, 123 and 126kgs in the clean & jerk, but Diaz answered with 119, 124 and that mind-boggling 127 kgs.
And finally, after several near misses in what amounts to 100 years of solitude, the Philippine national anthem was played and the flag raised for gold medal reason, with Diaz, an Air Force officer, saluting the flag and singing onstage, tears streaming down her face.
She had a total of 224 kgs to Liao’s 223 kgs.
The silver medals won by boxers Anthony Villanueva in 1964 in Tokyo and Mansueto ‘Onyok’ Velasco in 1996 in Atlanta, and Diaz’s own from Rio, now has glittering company in the country’s Olympic treasure chest, along with seven bronze medals.
Amazingly, Tokyo, where the pandemic forced a one-year delay from 2020, is also where the Philippines won its first silver medal, Diaz becoming the country’s first multi-medal winner after the legendary Teofilo Yldefonso in 1928 in Amsterdam and 1932 in Los Angeles.
With the monkey off their backs, Diaz teammates in the national team, including weightlifting colleague Elreen Ando, who competes Tuesday, judoka Kiyomi Watanabe, the four boxers led by quarterfinalist Nesthy Petecio, gymnastics hope Carlos Yulo, track and field’s Kristina Knott and EJ Obiena, and the golfing trio, including US Women’s Open champion Yuka Saso could all buckle down in their bids follow Diaz’s golden trail.
Liao’s coach, through an interpreter, said his ward bore no regret for losing because “she did her best” and that she lost to a very good opponent “who remained stable through the competition.”
Overshadowed by Diaz’s historic performance, were the two nerve-fraying bouts at the Kokugikan Arena that put the wind behind Team Philippines and drove it forward, especially after street skateboarder Margielyn Didal reached the final of her event at the Ariake Urban Park but could go no higher than seventh place overall against younger and far audacious skaters, led by 13-year-old gold medalist Momiji Nishiya of Japan
While both fights could have gone either way, featherweight Nesthy Petecio and flyweight Carlo Paalam had enough left in the tank after draining locomotive starts to earn split decisions that moved them closer to the medal rounds.
The No. 2 ranked Petecio stunned top seed Lin Yu-Ting of Chinese-Taipei in the women’s 54-57 kg division to advance to the quarterfinals Wednesday against Columbia’s Yeni Marcela Arias Castaneda, who defeated Bulgaria’s Stanimira Nikolaeva Petrova 3-2 in the succeeding bout.
Though towered over by her 5-foot-8, the switch-hitting Petecio, defending world champion in her division, took the first round 4-1 on the strength of crafty left-right combinations that threw the Taiwanese world No. 1 off-balanced and tentative in her punches.
“Iniiba ko lang po para di nya ako mapag-aralan,” said Petecio. “Pag naka-adjust na siya sa kana, lumilipat naman ako sa kaliwa.”
Lin managed to pull level in the scores after the second round, but Petecio came through with crisp combinations before dancing out of reach to the finish.
“Nakaw-nakaw lang po ako ng suntok nong huli at iningatan ko lang na tamaan ako ng solid,” said Petecio.
“Alam na po na lamang tayo dahil di naman siya tumatama ng fatal, ng klarong-laro.”
The final scores went 28-29, 29-28, 28-28, 29-28, 29-28, a testament to the closeness of the fight.
Petecio’s rousing win came less than an hour after Paalam, sharp and relentless, rumbled through three rounds in hammering out a similar split decision victory over tall but lanky Brendan Irvine of Ireland in the flyweight 48-52 kg division.
Paalam followed teammate Irish Magno to the next round in the preliminaries, with a second win assuring them of berths in the quarterfinals as Petecio.
Magno, on Sunday, had steered clear of complications by outboxing Christine Ongare of Kenya through three rounds 5-0 in the women’s 48-51kg Round of 32 bout.
Next up for Magno on Wednesday is Thailand’s Jutamas Jitpong, whom she beat in the semifinals of the 2019 Southeast Asian Games on the way to the gold medal bout where she took the silver.
The fourth Filipino boxer who earned passage to the Games, middleweight Eumir Felix Marcial, is seeded to the Round of 16 of the 75kg division against a yet to be determined opponent on Thursday.
The 4-1 split decision came as no surprise as the Irish fighter, about four inches taller and with longer reach, went to his advantage after getting mugged in the first round, which Paalam took in the card of all five judges.
Paalam never wavered though even as two judges gave the second round to the Irishman, and two others had the Filipino trailing in the third.
The finals scores went 30-27, 29-28, 28-29, 30-27 and 29-28.
“Thankful kasi nanalo tayo on the first day ng laro ko,” said Paalam, a native of Cagayan de Oro.
“Medyo dikit man ang laban, at least, binuhos ko kung anong natitira sa pagod ko. Binuhos ko na lahat po. Nakita nyo naman kahit pagod na pagod na ako, suntok pa rin ako ng suntok kasi gusto ko talaga manalo para sa pamilya, para sa team.”
According to Australian coaching consultant Don Abnett, Paalam apparent misheard the notice given him after the first round that he was ahead 5-0.
“He thought he was trailing and so threw caution to the wind and traded punches,” said Abnett.