MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte urged Olympic weightlifting champion Hidilyn Diaz on Wednesday to "let bygones be bygones", two years after his government named the Filipina in a chart claiming to show a plot to undermine him.
Duterte spoke to the athlete in a Zoom call broadcast live on state television shortly after she arrived in Manila from Tokyo where she made history Monday winning the country's first Olympic gold medal.
Congratulating Diaz on her performance, the president pledged to reward her with three million pesos ($60,000) out of his own pocket, and told her to "forget" about "bad things" from the past.
"You already have the gold and it would be good for you to let bygones be bygones," he told the 30-year-old.
Diaz, wearing her Philippine Air Force uniform with her gold medal draped around her neck as she sat in a room at the airport, thanked Duterte before saluting him.
In 2019 the Rio silver medallist was among dozens named in charts released by Duterte's then spokesman allegedly showing links between people he accused of plotting to "discredit this administration".
The charts, which did not substantiate the accusations, included the names of opposition politicians, an exiled communist guerrilla leader, journalists and others.
People called out publicly by the president for perceived wrongdoings -- frequently in the form of alleged links to the drug trade -- have sometimes ended up dead or in jail.
"I am shocked. I am concerned for my security as well as that of my parents," Diaz said at the time.
Salvador Panelo, who was the spokesman and is now the president's chief legal counsel, said this week he had previously clarified Diaz was not part of the anti-government plot, but was merely followed on social media by one of the suspects.
The "oust Duterte matrix" had been "misinterpreted", Panelo told local media.
Diaz was welcomed at Manila airport by Philippine Air Force officers waving the national flag. She will spend the next seven days in hotel quarantine.
The athlete's triumph has made her a national hero, alongside the likes of boxing legend Manny Pacquiao.
The feat is also a life-changing windfall for Diaz, the daughter of a tricycle driver on the southern island of Mindanao.
In addition to the three million pesos offered by Duterte, she will receive 33 million pesos and two properties from the government and private sector.
She was also promoted to staff sergeant, earning her a 630-peso monthly pay increase from her previous rank of sergeant, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said.
Diaz, fresh from winning her country’s first Olympic gold medal in nearly a century at the Tokyo Games, arrived in Manila on Wednesday and was whisked off to a hotel for seven days of quarantine.
“Gold at last!” read a banner at the airport as military personnel waved Philippine flags and applauded when Diaz landed. But not even her historic medal can eclipse coronavirus protocols in a country grappling with continuing virus outbreaks and an economic crisis.
The 30-year-old Diaz, who won gold in the women’s 55-kilogram category on Monday in her fourth Olympic appearance, will be able to collect her rewards once she is released from quarantine.
Philippine officials and business tycoons have offered more than 40 million pesos ($800,000) in cash. Others have pledged a residential condominium unit in an upscale district, a vacation house in a resort city south of Manila, a new van and free gasoline, as well as free commercial flights for life.
President Rodrigo Duterte and his Cabinet members congratulated Diaz by video.
The Philippines has the second-largest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Southeast Asia. Lockdowns and quarantines caused the economy to plummet last year in the country’s worst post-war recession.
The Philippines has competed at every edition of the Summer Olympics since 1924 — except for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games — and has won three silver and seven bronze medals. Diaz won a silver medal in 2016, her country’s first appearance on an Olympic podium in 20 years.
Ahead of the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games, travel restrictions forced Diaz to undergo training for more than a year in Malaysia. But with her triumph, Diaz earned a place in the country’s “pantheon of legendary athletes,” according to a Philippine Senate citation. She joins the ranks of a handful of Filipino sports celebrities who have earned international acclaim, led by boxer Manny Pacquiao, now a senator and a possible presidential contender in next year’s elections.
Philippine TV networks have run tributes on Diaz, focusing on how she overcame poverty in her southern hometown of Zamboanga through sports. The fifth of six children of a motorcycle taxi driver, she had to carry containers of water for blocks to her house and haul vegetables to be sold in a public market, helping develop her muscles.
People saw her potential for weightlifting early but she was discouraged by others who told her the sport was reserved for men and that they could prevent her from getting pregnant.
But she persisted and won a local weightlifting competition, which served as her springboard to the Olympics.
Military chief of staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said Wednesday that Diaz, who is in the air force, has been promoted to the rank of staff sergeant “for bringing pride and glory to our country.”
Duterte, Roman Catholic church leaders, top business executives, movie celebrities and ordinary Filipinos have expressed gratitude and congratulations. Aside from well wishes, a windfall of financial rewards await. Philippine officials and business tycoons have pledged more than 40 million pesos ($800,000) in cash. Others have pledged a residential condominium unit in an upscale district, a vacation house in a resort city south of Manila, a new van and free gasoline, as well as free commercial flights for life.
(With AP Inputs)