Winning ways

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

The stories of two women athletes have captured the Philippines and the world’s attention this week.

First Hidilyn Diaz, whose incredible Olympic achievement was delivered to the country on the heels of President Duterte’s State of the Nation Address. Finally, the Philippines, through one woman’s struggle to be the best, had its first Olympic gold medal. Her story has been told repeatedly over the past few days and, perhaps inevitably, there seemed to be various attempts to fold Diaz’s victory into a political narrative. Whose victory was it really? Diaz’s? The Philippines? Her supporters?

“It takes a lot of people to win a gold medal in the Olympics,” Diaz told ANC Headstart. “It is a lesson for me, the government, for all Filipinos.”

It’s not just the Philippines that does it. There is something irresistible about using an event to champion a cause. Something in human nature demands myths and fables are carved out of stories, so as to extract meaning from the apparently random stuff of petty existence.

In the United Kingdom’s case, Tom Daley’s story has stood out. I remember his first Olympics, when he was just 14 and I was with the Al Jazeera English team in Beijing and the precision of his diving. Since then he’s won two bronze medals, but finally in Tokyo in his fourth Olympic Games, at 27 years of age, he won a gold with Matty Lee for synchronized diving. His persistence and determination as well as his strong public advocacy for gay rights have provided that extra significance to his gold medal win.

“In terms of out athletes, there are more openly out athletes at these Olympic Games than any Olympic Games previously. I came out in 2013 and when I was younger, I always felt like the one that was alone and different and didn’t fit. There was something about me that was never going to be as good as what society wanted me to be. I hope that any young LGBT person out there can see that no matter how alone you feel right now, you are not alone. You can achieve anything,” he said, between Chinese athletes and Russian bronze medallists, with the media of both countries broadcasting his words. Same-sex marriage is not legal in either country.

Some UK commentators commented that his gold medal, and indeed all of Team GB’s achievements, are the result of sport being reinvigorated after the disaster of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. They came back dubbed the “Team of Shame,” after their worst show since 1952. Dispiriting stories about the lack of support the team had had, included athletes selling their Olympic kit to pay off loans and practicing in their bathrooms with a hot shower on, to try to recreate the humidity of the Atlanta summer.

UK Sport, a government agency, was created as a result, it decides who gets what funding and is also responsible for coordinating and supporting the hosting of major international sports events across the UK. It’s made a huge difference, though it also comes under intense public scrutiny and criticism. At least it’s there.

For the Philippines, it sounds as if Diaz would like her victory to be the catalyst for change in the way athletes are supported.

Simone Biles has not won any medals. She is the world’s greatest gymnast, but it is her decision not to compete that has captured the public imagination. Her decision to bow out from the competition because of her mental health and the potential danger of attempting the extraordinary feats of strength and agility demanded of her has brought out the stories of many more athletes who had never spoken about the difficulties of disciplining the mind as well as the body.

“We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement. “Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.”

This is a different kind of courage, the kind all of us face every day in being able to acknowledge and accept our own limits and the limits of the world around us. Biles’ story created another dimension to how sportsmanship is viewed, beyond winners and losers. She has nothing left to prove after all the achievements of past years. Yes, there were expectations, excitement and anticipation about what she might achieve in Tokyo. In the end it hasn’t been about what medals she has around her neck, but about what she has won for all athletes around the world. Without winning, she has elevated the way we all regard each other as humans.

None of them has managed to shift my favorite sporting hero from his top spot in my own ranking of role models. Marcus Rashford is still the Man as far as I’m concerned. The footballer became a hero of the pandemic in England last year when he championed the cause of hungry children whose free lunches were being threatened by government cutbacks and forced the government into two policy U-turns. He said he would have gone hungry himself if he hadn’t had those lunches when he was a child and his mother was struggling to put food on the table.

For me, perhaps his biggest achievement of all is making Manchester United bearable.

Have I mentioned I’m an Arsenal fan?



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