Chinese world record holder Liao Qiuyun and her coach both did not expect Filipina lifter Hidilyn Diaz “to be so strong,” a costly underestimation that played right into the hands of the Philippine team.
“I really didn’t expect the opponent to be so strong,” Chinese women’s weightlifting coach Zhang Guozheng told Chinese media in an interview.
"We just want to force her to lift 127 kilograms. I didn't expect her to lift it," Zhang said of Hidilyn.
In a separate interview, an emotional Liao said the same.
“I just didn’t expect that the opponent’s strength was really strong,” she said shortly after the historic match.
Team China's shock and disappointment was borne from the weight of expectations that Liao carried as the gold medal favorite heading into the match. This was because Liao practically dominated her pre-Olympic competitions.
During the 2019 Asian Weightlifting Championships in Ningbo, China, Liao scooped up three gold medals with her 96-kg snatch, her record-setting 128-kg clean and jerk, and her final score of 224 kg.
Then, just a few months after, Liao rewrote her world record in the 55-kg women's category, giving a preview of her peak form.
During the World Weightlifting Championships held in Thailand in September, 2019, Liao again won the gold in all of her lifts with a staggering new world record of 129 kgs for the clean and jerk and a total score of 227 kgs.
In Hunan, a mountainous region in southern China where Liao grew up, she is also known as “wěn gūniáng,” which roughly translates to "the steady girl." One look at her during competitions tells the story behind her moniker — while many would usually find their legs wobble as they steady the weight of the bars, even wincing as they muster every inch of every muscle to lift plates over twice their body weight, Liao, on the other hand, breaks nary a sweat. Her legs look almost as strong and steady as the steel bar she clutches with relative ease. Her lifts seem effortless it's almost clinical.
But while Liao was making wave after wave in the weightlifting circuit, Diaz was hardly making a ripple prior to the Olympics. During the Asian Championships in Uzbekistan in April, 2021 that Liao again lorded over, Diaz went home empty-handed after finishing fourth place. But as it turns out, playing possum was all part of Team HD's plan.
In an interview with One News’ The Chiefs, Samahang Weightlifting ng Pilipinas president Monico Puentevella said they intentionally made Diaz finish sans a medal during the Asian Championships last April. In effect, they sought to underplay their card to avoid Diaz being scouted.
"We really intended not to get any medal. The Chinese never knew her (Diaz’s) strength then, but we knew. When we came home we already knew the strength of the Chinese,” Puentevella said.
And during the moment of truth, Team HD's ruse worked to a tee.
After hiding their cards for so long, Team HD's game day play was to engage in one-upmanship against Liao, who has been dominating the field in the lead-up to Tokyo. This meant that every weight Liao submitted, Diaz would outdo by a kilo. The strategy started from the snatch up until the deciding last lift for the clean and jerk, when Liao lifted 126 kg, that Diaz, as will now be told in history books for time immemorial, outdid by successfully lifting 127 kgs. It was a grand reveal of epic proportions that unfolded according to plan.
In an interview with Karen Davila on Headstart, Diaz said that Liao's camp even got mad at her Chinese coach Gao Kaiwen for not sharing how strong she actually was.
Some Chinese netizens also pinned part of the blame over Liao's silver-medal finish on coach Zhang being too "bǎoshǒu" or "conservative" in his strategy.
Zhang Guozheng, however, denied he was being "conservative" by saying that Liao Qiuyun's pre-Olympic peak form was 126 kgs.
"We are not conservative. We want 126 kg. It is based on Liao Qiuyun's true training level," Zhang said in a report by the General Administration of Sport of China of the Chinese government.
It turned out that Liao went through a bout of injuries that reportedly hindered her from rounding back into her 2019 peak performance.
"Liao Qiuyun did well. However, there are injuries and problems. Maybe the previous period of training was not adequate," Zhang said.
Asked what he told his ward after the competition, the coach replied, "I said to Liao Qiuyun... it's really not easy. The opponent did better than us, but we have reached our limit. You can leave with your head held high."
"We should have trained better some time ago to make Liao Qiuyun stronger. I am very satisfied with Liao Qiuyun's performance today and I have no regrets. Congratulations to Diaz," Zhang said.
Like Diaz, Liao also started in the sport at age 11, although the latter is younger by four years. Diaz is 30 years old while Liao is 26. This was also Liao's first Olympic showing.
After her less-than-perfect Olympic debut, she was quoted as saying that she was also happy for Diaz.
"No regrets," Liao said.