December 01, 2023

GUTS AND GLORY | Refueling: Hangzhou only a layover for Hidilyn Diaz, Eumir Marcial en route to Paris

GUTS AND GLORY | Refueling: Hangzhou only a layover for Hidilyn Diaz, Eumir Marcial en route to Paris
Art by Royce Nicdao

Hangzhou, China - It’s amazing how a few kilograms can alter the trajectory of an athlete’s career. 

Two Filipino athletes, both medalists in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, suddenly found themselves underdogs in the 19th Asian Games here in Hangzhou, China.

Hidilyn Diaz, the Philippines’ lone Olympic gold medalist, had to leave her 55 kg division in weightlifting as it will not be in the program for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Eumir Marcial, a bronze medalist in the 75 kg division in the previous edition of the Summer Games, suffered a similar fate. Men’s Olympic boxing was going to be trimmed from nine divisions to eight and, unfortunately, it was his 75 kg division that got axed.

The two athletes from Zamboanga City had differing first reactions to the challenge. Diaz quickly resolved to start training to move up to 59 kg. She won one last Southeast Asian Games gold medal last year then started moving north, starting with the 2023 Asian Weightlifting Championships, where she finished fourth.

Marcial, on the other hand, considered it might be the end. He was already competing in professional boxing matches, where he holds four wins without a defeat. Moving down was going to be impossible, especially in the amateur ranks where you need to stay within the weight limit for the duration of the tournament. Moving up would be challenging as he was not “big” for his division to begin with.

Diaz and Marcial did not go in as medal favorites in the 19th Asian Games.

The 32-year-old Diaz just wanted to represent and continue her process. There will be more chances to qualify for the Olympics and she only needs to be at her best for one day in Paris for a chance to earn her third Olympic medal. 

She finished fourth in Hangzhou, four kilos behind bronze medalist and fellow former Olympic gold medalist Kuo Hsing Chun of China and a whopping 23 kilos behind gold medalist Kim Ilgyong of North Korea.

Still, as she's done in the past, Diaz ended her stint with a smile on her face. All she needed to get from these competitions was the reassurance that she did the right thing by giving her Olympic dream one last run.

For Marcial, it was similar but also vastly different. Yes, he got the same reassurance as Diaz, but he wanted the Asian Games gold as well. 

See, that’s the difference between being an athlete in weightlifting and boxing. 

In the former, gains are gradual. You put in hours and hours of training to lift one kilo heavier than the last. You need to carefully decide how you’ll add that body weight as you jump a division.

In boxing, it’s a lot different. It doesn’t matter how used your opponents are in a certain weight division. If your opponent can’t take your punch, then you have a shot.

Marcial was in a great position to end the Philippines' long gold medal drought in Asian Games boxing. The last golden mint the country won was in 2010 courtesy of Rey Saludar. 

After winning the first round, Marcial could have built an insurmountable lead, getting another 10-9 in the second. However, he took too many chances and paid for it as China's Tuohetaerbieke Tanglatihan scored his own standing eight.

Marcial thought he did enough to win the match with a better performance in the third round, but the gold was given to Tanglatihan by the judges

Still, being starved of the gold here in Hangzhou will only make Marcial a more dangerous fighter in the 2024 Paris Olympics. Knowing he can beat Tuohetaerbieke—the reigning World Championships silver medalist and the fighter who eliminated world champion Nurbek Oralbay in this year's Asian Games—should give him the belief that he can go back to the Olympic podium if he works hard for it.

For Diaz, Paris is not yet promised. She is currently eighth in the world rankings, while her young teammate, Elreen Ando, who won a bronze in Hangzhou, is not that far behind at 10th. Only one of them will be able to compete in next year's Olympics.

Diaz and Maricial came into the 19th Asian Games wanting to know more about themselves and where they stood in their respective sports. They did not let arbitrary decisions from the powers that be end their respective careers.

Their stints here may have fallen short of a gold but it was never the final goal, only fuel for the long road to Paris.