“Nothing is impossible”: The ASEAN women making history at Tokyo 2020
The 2020 Olympics has offered a welcome retreat from the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic and with it has offered a stage for athletes globally to inspire much-needed hope to both fans and aspiring athletes alike. Here we look at four influential ASEAN women making history on one of the most unique Olympic stages in recent memory.
I want to say this to all Filipinos: nothing is impossible.Hidilyn Diaz
These were the victorious words uttered from one of the Philippines’ most decorated Olympians of all time. Hidilyn Diaz made history on the 26th July when she lifted up the final weight of the Women’s 55kg weightlifting competition, and with it the hopes of a nation. The first ever gold medal for the Philippines was finally won after 93 years in competition, with Diaz being only the second Filipino to become a double medallist, almost a century after swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso brought home silver and bronze in the 1928 and 1932 games.
However, it hasn’t been an easy road for Diaz. What she attributes as her key out of poverty, weightlifting became a vocal part of her teenage years to the point where in her third year of attaining her Computer Science degree she left the University of Zamboanga to continue developing her skill set. After competing in London 2012, she self-recruited into the Philippine Army and served in the ranks for a number of years before securing her place in Rio 2016, where she gained a silver medal. However, shortly after, she found herself falsely accused of conspiring against the government in the 2019 oust-Duterte plot, leaving her reportedly feeling threatened for her life. This, coupled with a mental struggle through the pandemic and being stuck in Malaysia away from family proved that Diaz’ road to Tokyo 2020 has been everything but smooth.
Nonetheless, the road led to victory. Not only has Diaz achieved a momentous personal achievement, especially with the winning lift being a weight she has never previously achieved in training; but the Philippines are considering it a national one. Speaker of the House of Representatives Lord Allan Velasco said: “We thought an Olympic gold medal for the Philippines would never happen in our lifetime until it did, many thanks to Hidilyn Diaz!”. The praise was accompanied by a new Congressional Medal of Excellence to be awarded to future gold medallists with the added hope of inspiring a generation of prospective athletes. This seems to be a big shift from the attitude the Philippine government used to have towards sports funding, with a history of undercuts undermining athletes including Diaz in recent times.
Diaz, who now at 30 seems to be retiring from weightlifting, has tackled many obstacles in getting to where she is now, and it seems that this victory has signalled a shift in the way the national committee treats Olympic sport. As with other people mentioned in this blogpost, Diaz’ pioneering win has not only served to inspire and ignite hope in times of uncertainty but has made the possibility of pursuing sports as a career path all the more possible.
Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu
Another win was celebrated by the Indonesian badminton duo Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu, an unseeded pair who managed to beat out the favourited Chinese team, bringing home Indonesia’s first title in the Women’s double competition. As this was Indonesia’s first and only gold medal so far in Tokyo, President Joko Widodo attributed their victory as a gift for the country’s Independence Day which falls on August 17th, and their arrival back to Indonesia has been met with rewards ranging from animals to meatball restaurants.
Before her Olympic debut, Rahayu considered Polii one of her greatest idols, and after a tumultuous few years of competing with different partners, Polii was on the edge of retirement. Rahayu played a large role in convincing her to get back into the sport after Rio 2016. She is reported saying: “I just kept telling her ‘don’t quit – just play with me’”, and Polii, who envisioned herself as a badminton player from the age of 13, decided to give it one last go. After the competition Polii sobbed and stated proudly, “Here I am now”, confirming her place as an influential Indonesian sportswoman.
Coming from a year of hardship, with her brother tragically dying in December from COVID-19 the day after her wedding, Polii’s victory with Rahayu extends past the Olympics. Relatable to many, the duo’s win can be seen as an achievement not only of a gold medal but a confirmation of regaining strength after the ramifications of COVID-19. These women have brought home a new award for the country in the form of a gold medal in Women’s doubles badminton and with it a successful end to a whirlwind career for Polii and the promise of an emerging one for Rahayu.
Thai athlete Panipak Wongpattanakit also made history at Tokyo 2020 by bringing home Thailand’s first ever gold medal for Taekwondo when competing in the under 49kg weight division. This was also Thailand’s first medal of the Olympics and Wongpattanakit’s return to Phuket was met with tears and celebrations. Stepping off the plane and seeing her family again reportedly marked the “happiest moment” of her life.
Another medal to put alongside her Bronze won in Rio 2016, Wongpattanakit is already an impressive figure in her sport and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Like Rahayu for Indonesia, Wongpattanakit is an athlete with endless promise for future games and has led to the Thai National Sports Development Fund awarding her an impressive THN20m, or £435,700 for her victory. Not only has she actively helped bring funding to the sport, but this reward is influential in making it known to other prospective athletes of the viability of sports being a worthwhile career path, hopefully spurring on a new bout of Olympians in the near future.
This new generation of successful ASEAN women stand to inspire a new cohort of ASEAN youth into taking sport as a valid career path, and hopefully prove that it is an opportunity unbounded to gender normativity. These four victories so far are the only ASEAN gold medals to be brought home from this year’s Olympics and as is well regarded, representation has proved to be an important tool in mobilising and inspiring onlookers to believe in what may seem an impossibility. This strong display of female victors who have proven themselves to not only make it to the Olympics but become the best in their sport is undoubtedly inspiring and incredibly important.