Hidilyn’s battle: Woman vs. machine

In a recent interview with ABS-CBN News, Hidilyn Diaz, the 30-year-old Filipina weightlifter who won the country’s first-ever Olympic gold, summed up her feelings thus: “I couldn’t believe I did it… at last I beat China.” She did not refer by name to her most formidable opponent — Liao Qiuyun, the world’s reigning champion in the 55-kg women’s weightlifting division — but by her country.

This may seem logical in a global sporting event where even celebrity athletes compete primarily under their countries’ flags. But there is another sense in which we might appreciate the import of Hidilyn’s statement. Her victory in Tokyo was, in many ways, also the triumph of the human will and spirit over the gold-driven sporting machine that China has methodically deployed in these Games.

China’s approach to the formation of champion athletes bears a close resemblance to the system that reigns in the assembly-line production of its manufactured exports. Every year, Beijing sends out talent scouts to various parts of the country to look for children who could be shaped into athletes. Tens of thousands of these pre-teen kids are then subjected to various tests to determine in which field of sports they are best suited. Only a few survive this tough culling process. The majority are let go even after many years of training—insufficiently educated and often broken in body and spirit.

Since its debut in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, weightlifting for women has been among China’s favored fields for its most promising young recruits. This field features four divisions—therefore, four golds—in a sport that, so far, has not received as much attention in the West. For a country that is singularly focused on earning gold medals as an index of its growing superiority in all fields of human endeavor, like China, “niche” sports provide ample opportunity to increase the all-important harvest of gold.

“In 1988,” writes Hannah Beech of the New York Times (July 29, 2021), “China won five Olympic golds. Two decades later, when Beijing hosted the Games, it surpassed the United States to top the gold count.” Most of these much sought-after gold medals have been earned in individual events, where skills are honed and perfected through unceasing repetitive routines. China’s athletes have not done as well in large team sports like basketball and soccer, where successful performance is dependent on the complex interplay of many moving parts. The only exception is women’s volleyball, where China won the gold in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. In Tokyo, alas, the same team—the defending champion—has already lost three matches in succession, dropping to 5th place in Pool B.

Since 1984, according to the NYT article, 75 percent of China’s Olympic golds have been won in only six sports: table tennis, shooting, diving, badminton, gymnastics, and weightlifting. A lot of this success has been due to China’s women athletes, who constitute 70 percent of the Chinese Olympic delegation to Tokyo.

One of the key components of the well-oiled Chinese sporting machine in the 2020 Olympics is precisely the 26-year-old female weightlifter Liao Qiuyun, the defending champion in the 55-kg class. In the eyes of her superiors, who did not think much of the competition from the other countries, she was one of the sure winners.

But, in Tokyo, Liao had to settle for the silver when she was shockingly outclassed by the improbable Hidilyn Diaz, who didn’t appear to pose any threat at all—until the moment of reckoning itself. Hitherto, the Chinese had been certain that Hidilyn’s strength could handle 94 kgs in snatch and 117 kgs in clean and jerk—her record in the 2019 Pattaya World Championships. Her own target since then had been to improve this to 98/120, still below Liao’s proven capability.

In September 2020, Hidilyn and her four-person “Team HD” found themselves stranded in Malaysia because of the pandemic lockdown. Desperate to find a place where she could resume her training for the Tokyo Games, she frantically called Ahmad Janius Abdullah, the deputy president of the Malaysian Weightlifting Federation.

Abdullah generously responded by arranging to send Hidilyn and her team to Malacca, where he converted his mother-in-law’s front garage into a makeshift gym. This was where the future champion trained for 10 months, assisted by a devoted team who personally embraced her dream, and surrounded by awestruck Malaysian children who found a role model in the lipstick-wearing Filipina Olympian.

The July 28 issue of the Inquirer carries a fascinating account by Francis T.J. Ochoa titled “The Queen’s Gambit,” which describes the creative blending of strategy and sheer grit that gave Hidilyn Diaz the will to lift 127 kgs in the final clean and jerk portion of her event. This was 1 kg heavier than Liao’s final submission, and a weight that Hidilyn herself admitted she had not succeeded in lifting until then. Hidilyn’s feat completely floored the Chinese team, who could not believe that anyone could make so much progress in such a short time.

At the podium for the awarding of the medals, Hidilyn, a sergeant in the Philippine Air Force, was pure emotion as she executed a snappy salute upon hearing the Philippine national anthem played in the Olympics for the first time. To her right, Liao stood emotionless, a portrait of disappointment. Backstage, as her coach comforted her, the Chinese athlete told the news people around her: “Today, I did my best.” Then tears flowed down her cheeks. It was a rare glimpse of the human spirit that couldn’t be totally controlled by the machine.