August 14, 2012 00:00
By Preechachan Wiriyanupappong,
Despite winning no gold medals, Thailand still did well by Asean standards; bosses call for bigger team to be sent to Rio in 2016
After 17 action-packed days at the 30th Olympic Games in London, Thai athletes returned with just three medals – no golds – in a result below expectations and a far cry from their previous Games.
Thailand first participated in the quadrennial sports spectacle in the 1952 Helsinki Games and since then has won a total of 21 medals, mostly in boxing.
It was not until Atlanta in 1996 when featherweight Somluck Khamsing made his mark in the ring, and captured Thai hearts, by winning the country’s first ever Olympic gold.
From then, until this year, Thai athletes returned from every Games with at least one gold. The 2004 Games in Athens was the most successful. Thais fought tooth and nail to win eight medals, including three gold.
However, things turned sour for Thailand in London this year, which saw only 37 athletes from 16 sports associations test their mettle in the biggest Games of all. The size of the Thai team was well down on the 51 athletes who went to Beijing four years ago.
Results were down too. Thais left the Chinese capital with heads high after winning four medals, two of them gold. In London, Thailand claimed three medals, one silver apiece from light-flyweight boxer Kaew Pongpra-yoon and weightlifter Pimsiri Sirikaew, plus a bronze from Chanatip Sonkham in taekwondo.
Many critics said Thai athletes’ performances in London were below par. The national team was a mix of young talents, many of them teenagers, and former Olympic athletes, who, despite having valuable competitive experience, failed to make the grade in fierce battles against the world’s best.
With the weight of past success at the Games becoming a heavy burden, the boxing team faced an uphill task to extend the country’s proud record of winning at least a bronze from the sport in every Games.
Preparation was far from ideal. In fact Thai boxing had just come through one of its most turbulent periods, with a new national body set up following a row with the sport’s ruling organisation, the International Boxing Association (AIBA). These distractions were cited as a major reason why Thailand had only three fighters in London, the smallest team in years to compete in an Olympics.
With the early exit of Sailom Ardee and Chatchai Butdee, only Kaew Pongprayoon, 32, from Kamphaeng Phet, was left to fly the flag. He doggedly forced his way into the men’s 49kg final against three-time world champion Zou Shiming of China.
Despite losing the showdown, Kaew produced a display that encapsulated a rugged, fighting spirit against an accomplished fighter. His silver was hailed as remarkable success for Thai boxing, given the circumstances.
Meanwhile, seven weightlifters representing Thailand in London were also young. More experience and foreign exposure is required to make them physically stronger and better prepared for the future, when they will compete against stronger opponents.
In taekwondo, with in-form exponents such as the Guangzhou Asian Games silver medallist Pen-Ek Karaket, the Thai squad had high hopes of some glory. However, the draw played a key role in negating Thai prospects. An easy draw would have helped the Thai fighters but it was not to be. Pen-Ek and world champ Rangsiya Nisaisom put up good fights but suffered first-round losses. Only Chanatip saved pride by taking bronze.
Thailand set an initial target of two golds from the London Games, but Gen Yuthasak Sasiprapha, head of the Olympic Committee of Thailand (OCT), was convinced only one gold was within their reach.
His prediction was almost right, with Thai athletes returning with only two silver and a bronze after the Games ended on Sunday night.
Key sources agree that changes are needed to improve the country’s prospects at the next Games in Brazil in 2016.
The OCT’s vice president and secretary-general, Maj-General Charouck Arirachakaran, feels that sending a small number of athletes to the Olympics reduces their chance of winning gold medals.
“To increase our gold chances in the Olympics, it’s necessary that we send more athletes to qualification tournaments. The more our athletes make the cut, the more chances we will have of winning gold,” Charouck said.
“Additionally, we have to set aside a special bonus for those with brighter medal prospects, including boxing, weightlifting and taekwondo, to boost their spirit.
“We also need long-term training. Our athletes’ early trip to Manchester ahead of the London Games helped improve their potential and prospects in the Games.
“In the Rio de Janeiro Games four years from now, it’s important that we send our athletes to train there a few months ahead of the Games. I’m sure that it will work impressively,” he said.
Sports Authority of Thailand (SAT) governor Kanokphan Jullakasem was chairman of the Thai Athletes for the London Games Preparation Commit-tee. He agreed with Charouck’s idea, saying: “Each sports association should prepare a long-term plan. We [SAT] are ready to give them a full support.
“At the same time, more budget should be set up for those associations with medal hopefuls, badminton included. Sponsors should get reports about the athletes’ performances and progress they have made in order that they will throw in more financial support in the future. With our fruitful cooperation, I believe Thai athletes will be more successful in future Games. Also, we need to see the government policy for continued support for sports. It enhances our chance of winning Olympic medals.”
And, while the results may seem slim, Thais still have something to be proud of. Some 120 teams out of the 205 countries that sent athletes to London returned home with no medals at all.
Thailand’s two silvers and one bronze proved a cut above Asean giants Indonesia and Malaysia. Thailand finished 57th on the medal table, while their Asean counterparts came in joint 63rd overall with a silver and a bronze.