For the first time since the Philippines joined the Olympics nearly 100 years ago, its national anthem played during the medal ceremony for weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, who brought home the country’s very first gold medal last week.
To say it was a proud moment for sports-crazed Filipinos is an understatement. It was more of a historical triumph witnessed in real time and etched into the collective memory of Filipinos.
“This is the best Olympics for the Philippines because I went home with the gold medal that we have been aspiring to for 97 years,” Diaz told VICE World News in an interview. “We have proven that we Filipinos can win in the Olympics.”
“This Olympics united us Filipinos and it gave every Filipino hope and inspiration amid the pandemic,” she added. “We really needed to be united as one Philippines, especially during the pandemic. We need to love our country more.”
Gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz of Team Philippines poses with the gold medal during the ceremony for the Weightlifting - Women's 55kg Group A on day three of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo International Forum on July 26, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. PHOTO: Chris Graythen / Getty Images
But amazingly, the magic run continued, keeping Filipinos glued to livestreams of the games shared widely across social media, where they earned a virtual gold medal from Facebook for being the “loudest” country talking about the competitions on the platform.
Filipino athletes are now poised to take away at least four medals, the best at a single Olympic games since they bagged three in 1932.
Ahead of Tokyo 2020, the Southeast Asian country had won 10 medals, including three silvers and seven bronzes since it debuted in the 1924 Paris Olympics with only one athlete, runner David Nepomuceno. The country held what one commentator during the opening ceremony harshly called a “dubious record” of the most Olympic medals without a gold.
But as if answering the criticism with a swift rebuke, weightlifter Diaz led the charge by besting China’s Liao Qiuyun. Before the cheers could fade, boxer Nesthy Petecio won silver, making history as the first Filipino woman to ever win an Olympic medal for boxing.
Two other boxers, Eumir Marcial and Carlo Paalam, were assured bronzes after semi-final finishes and have a chance to collect more gold to add to the country’s Olympic treasure chest.
So how did the Philippines get here?
Francis T.J. Ochoa, sports editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer who has regularly covered the Olympics and international bouts of Filipino athletes, said the country’s delegation this year is the most diverse and talented in memory.
“The first thing is that the credential of this delegation is extraordinary. It has never happened that we have this kind of talent sent to the Olympics before,” Ochoa told VICE World News.
This year, the Philippines sent 19 athletes to Tokyo to compete in 12 sports, including first time entries in skateboarding, gymnastics and pole vaulting. This is comparably more than in Rio 2016, with 13 athletes in eight sports; London 2012 with 11 athletes in eight sports; and Beijing 2008 with 15 athletes in eight sports.
Olympic delegation of the Philippines parade into Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, July 23, 2021. PHOTO: Zheng Huansong / Xinhua via Getty Images
Experience also helps. Gold medalist Diaz is no newbie to the games. Tokyo is her fourth appearance, increasing the country’s chances especially after she took home a historic silver in Rio.
“We have some of the world or Asian champions in this delegation. The pressure for them is high but they are ready to face the challenges and deliver,” Ochoa said. “This is really the year for the Philippines”
Aside from the diversity, the Philippine boxing delegation has outperformed. Long the reliable sport for the Philippines – boxing accounted for half of the country’s total before Tokyo – it is adding three more this year.
“That’s certainly a cause of celebration. We are very proud of our athletes,” Ed Picson, secretary-general of the Association of Boxing Alliances in the Philippines, told VICE World News.
“We have been beefing up our coaching staff,” he added, saying they have employed an Australian coach who instituted training regimens that have “worked well” for the boxers.
“We instituted several fine tuning efforts in our programs. We emphasized for the past three or four years the importance of sports science.”
It wasn’t just the boxing team that incorporated more holistic training.
Women's Feather (52-57kg) silver medalist Nesthy Petecio of Team Philippines poses with her medal during the Victory Ceremony on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kokugikan Arena on Aug. 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. PHOTO: Dan Mullan / Getty Images
Bill Velasco, sports columnist for the Philippine Star, said Filipino Olympians this year have also benefited from reforms that prioritized science-based support for athletes.
“A lot of things worked in their favor. The Philippines Sports Commission recognized the need to put a complete team — sports science, dietician and psychologist — behind the athletes,” Velasco told VICE World News.
Crucially, the Philippine team’s improved performance was made possible with increased financial support from private donors and the government this time around, paving the way for higher-quality coaching and international training.
For the Tokyo 2020 cycle (2017 to 2021), the Philippine government has spent a whopping P2.1 billion or about $44 million, which is 16 times bigger than the budget it had for the Rio Olympics cycle.
“We never had a delegation that was as funded as this one. The support was extraordinary,” Ochoa said. “Private entities supported our national athletes, our athletes reached out to private benefactors. Everyone came together, everything came alive for this delegation.”
Carlo Paalam of Philippines is declared victorious over Shakhobidin Zoirov of Uzbekistan during their men's flyweight quarter-final bout at the Kokugikan Arena during the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. PHOTO: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile via Getty Images
This financial boost can be attributed, in part, to Diaz’s Rio Olympic victory in 2016 which was followed by the Philippines’ monumental success when the country hosted the Southeast Asian Games in 2019 where Filipinos bagged 149 gold medals.
And the extra year of training due to the pandemic appeared to have paid off for the athletes as well.
“The best part of it is the longer preparation time and the international exposure. The athletes benefited from the constant competition while preparing for the Olympics even during the pandemic,” Velasco added, noting that some of the Olympians did not stop joining tournaments except for Diaz, who was stuck in Malaysia during the pandemic.
Not everybody brought home a medal for the country, but the team is rich with potential. Much of the pressure to bring home a gold was laid on gymnast Carlos Yulo, but even though he failed to medal in the men’s gymnastic vault on Tuesday evening, he set the highest score during the event in his second attempt, showing that at just 21 years old, he has more Olympic competitions ahead of him.
Pole vaulter Ernest John Obiena finished 11th and while failing to secure a medal on Thursday night, he made it all the way to the final on his first appearance. Supporters are optimistic a brighter future lies ahead for the lone Asian finalist in the men’s pole vaulting event.
Eumir Marcial of Team Philippines celebrates victory over Arman Darchinyan (red) of Team Armenia during the Men's Middle (69-75kg) quarter final on day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kokugikan Arena on Aug. 01, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Buda Mendes / Getty Images
The impact of these games are already palpable in the Philippines.
Based on the storied achievements at the Tokyo Games, there is growing optimism that Filipino athletes will produce even more victories at Paris 2024. Diaz, Yulo and Petecio are all expected to take part, increasing the team’s experience and medal chances.
“Having that experience, having the confidence really makes a world of difference because you know where you stand against the world’s best,” Velasco said, making a comparison with the way boxing legend Manny Pacquiao’s rise motivated a new generation of fighters.
“Winning begets winning. The aspirational value of sports is that if that person can do it, maybe I can do it too.”
Now with an Olympic gold medal, Hidilyn Diaz hopes to serve as a good role model for Filipino athletes whom she believe can definitely conquer any sports with the right backing.
“For 97 years we had a lot of doubts, ‘Can we make it? Can we do it?,” Diaz said.
“[Now] many Filipinos will endeavor and will dream on because they can now see a role model. They can look up to me and say, ‘Hidilyn made it so can we.’”
Follow Anthony Esguerra on Twitter.