THERE was a wobbly moment during President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent visit to Qatar. Greeting the 6,000 OFWs who had piled into a sports stadium—Duterte has proven to be a very accommodating man when it comes to crowds that chant his name and salute him with raised fists—he nearly keeled over. No doubt spurred on by the showbiz atmosphere, he had sauntered across the stage in his usual relaxed style to shake people’s hands. As he got to the edge of the platform and extended his arm, he lurched forward and began to topple. Mercifully, his assistants, at least seven of them, rushed out from all sides and averted what could have been a catastrophic moment. One steadied him while the others, including a few local security guards, kept the crowd at bay. Duterte corrected his balance and remained upright, but only just. What made him totter? It’s high time some attention was given to the President’s paunch.
Reports were quick to suggest that an “over-excited OFW” was responsible for Duterte’s momentary loss of balance in the Qatar stadium. The OFW’s grasp was probably a bit tight and tugged. It’s also quite plausible that Duterte himself may have stood a little too close to the edge. Or maybe, as it seemed to me, the shakiness was due to a mathematical miscalculation of angles, height, and weight – the degree to which the President had to bend down relative to the OFW’s reach, the height of the stage to floor level, plus the physical weight of Duterte’s own body, equated to a whole lot of instability.
There have been episodes of equilibrium loss before. For instance, once when a reporter asked him whether he had a particular liking for Senator Leila de Lima, he responded negatively by almost falling off the podium. True, the physical faltering might have been feigned – it was perfect comic timing and earned him laughs, and he did manage to step down without help. Still, the President is undeniably far from spry. Arguably, at age 72, no one expects him to be. He’s not doddering quite yet—nobody wants to see their President propped by his minders—but nimbleness has certainly long deserted him.
Duterte was once trim. Straight-backed. Broad-shouldered. Hefty. Pictures of him taken in the early 1990s show a fit 5-foot 6-inch frame in figure-hugging jeans, a belt snaking around compact hips. He’s kept the charcoal black hair and severe haircut, but those slimming belts have been replaced by clip-braces that can be spied beneath his barong. The bodily changes of former President Joseph Estrada, from movie-star streamlined litheness to expanded waistline-waddle, makes for a good comparison. Once an action man, Estrada’s gait has become ungainly. When seated, his back slumps deep into the chair, his knees are set wide apart, and his belly forms a sort of rotund ledge. So it is with Duterte whose barong shirt crumples and constricts in all the wrong places. A suit and tie, which the President clearly feels awkward wearing, looks even worse.
A protruding stomach absolutely ruins the line, as fashion people like to say when clothes don’t hang properly and the side view profile is just all wrong. Duterte met Chinese President Xi Jinping wearing an ill-fitting funereal black suit in an outdated cut. The collars and sleeve cuffs swallowed his neck and hands. Worse, he shuffled ponderously behind the much taller Chinese Premier making him appear subservient, lumpy and shrunken. Optically speaking, the world stage is an unkind place for the Davao big man.
It’s hard to guess a man’s weight, but the emergence of an overhanging belly seems to be one of those stages in life, a corporeal evolution from which few Filipino men deviate. Some take great girth to mean a sign of good living and contentment as an abundance of meals, beer, smokes, and idleness brings it on. Yet it’s often accompanied by a bunch of other crippling ailments that do so much to remind a man of his mortality. Duterte’s belly is one of his many health burdens. He has publicly admitted to suffering from Buerger’s disease, Barratt’s esophagus, chronic migraines, spinal issues, a past (?) dependence on the powerful opiate Fentanyl, and recurrent itchy rashes. He’s mentioned his need forlong-term oxygen therapy. We might well speculate why. Could he be afflicted with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or possibly even, in addition to, sleep apnea? He tends to press parts of his face with his fingers. It’s an action, he explains, that alleviates pain, which might mean he is suffering from tortuous trigeminal neuralgia, an excruciatingly painful condition that is difficult to treat.
We may never know the true extent of Duterte’s health problems. Along with his bank accounts, he has stubbornly refused to disclose his medical records. All we can go on are the outward signs – the complaints of pain, the wobbles, the heavy paunch. He has said age is not on his side. It would seem neither is gravity.