Filipino weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz made history after winning the Philippines’ first-ever gold medal on July 26 at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
After the award ceremony, Diaz talked to the press and shared the challenges she had faced before winning the gold medal. She mentioned her training outside the country, which forced her to be separated from her family; the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on her preparation; and the financial difficulties that led her to publicly ask for sponsorship in 2019.
She also cited how she was wrongfully accused by President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson of belonging to a network of personalities and groups involved in a destabilization plot against the government.
In 2019, chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo presented a matrix during a press conference featuring individuals who were allegedly conspiring to remove President Rodrigo Duterte from power. Diaz’s name was included in the presentation.
Ironically, Panelo would be among the officials of the Duterte government who quickly praised Diaz for her historic win in Tokyo.
Asked by the media about the matrix, Panelo said he has nothing to apologize for because he merely presented it based on Duterte’s instructions. “It is easy to apologize if you did something wrong, but what did I do? I just presented the matrix, I had nothing to do with its creation. You cannot apologize for something you have not committed.”
However, he added that he is sorry for hurting Diaz. “I am sorry and sad she was hurt, but it was not the intention of those who came up with the matrix.”
The presidential palace distanced itself from the issue and denied that it had accused Diaz of being part of an anti-Duterte plot.
It is not only Diaz who remembers the wrong accusation, but also her parents, who continue to fear for the safety of their daughter. They are worried that her renewed popularity might generate new allegations and unfairly tag the 30-year-old Olympic champion as a member of the political opposition.
Some senators think that Panelo and the Duterte government should at least offer an apology to Diaz and her family.
“I think to a certain extent, at the very least they should say ‘we made a mistake, we’re sorry, we’re happy that she won. This is the information we got and maybe we should not have done it that way and opened our mouths.’ That’s why big mouths don’t make big men,” said Senator Richard Gordon in a TV interview.
But Senator Panfilo Lacson added that the apology should be sincere. “Apologies cannot be demanded nor urged. Even if the apologies are volunteered, they are worthless if not offered with sincerity.”
An apology should also include the failure to stop Duterte’s cyber army and social media influencers from cyberbullying Diaz in 2019. This happened after Diaz asked for sponsorship and financial support for Olympic athletes. The government responded by denying that it had been remiss in providing financial support to Diaz. Soon, the weightlifter would be targeted by hateful online comments coming mainly from Duterte’s loyal supporters.
Diaz would later get her sponsorship from a private company before quietly preparing for the Tokyo Olympics.
The response of the Duterte government and its army of propagandists to Diaz’s legitimate funding appeal was to implicate her in a dubious ouster plot and belittle her credibility. This not only disrupted Diaz’s preparation for the Olympics but also caused her and her family a lot of anguish. This was a harsh treatment for an athlete who won a silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics, a gold medal in the 2018 Asian Games, and who would continue to bring great honor to the country by winning the elusive gold medal this year.
What the government did to Diaz in 2019 reflected its intolerance of real or perceived criticisms against the president. It showed how even an Olympic champion can be wrongly judged and persecuted simply because she was speaking out about the conditions of athletes in the country.
The Duterte government is expected to reward Diaz for her Olympic victory. This should be accompanied by a sincere apology and an assurance that athletes and ordinary citizens can freely express their grievances without provoking state reprisals.