Late-bloomer Kaew last Thai hope for gold
Thailand's hopes of an elusive gold medal at the London Olympic Games boil down to boxing yet again, with veteran light flyweight Kaew Pongprayoon carrying the whole country's expectations when he steps into the ring in the semi-final bout against third seed David Ayrapetyan of Russia today.The Kingdom fielded 37 athletes in 16 disciplines in the world's biggest sporting event, held for the third time in the British capital, more than any other city. After 13 days of competition, Thailand has so far managed to claim only a silver and a bronze medal - in weightlifting and taekwondo respectively - a far cry from the haul they achieved at the previous Games in Beijing, where they earned four medals, two of them gold.
The 32-year-old Kaew is the last remaining Thai representative in London with a chance of salvaging the country's pride with an Olympic gold medal, while at the same time marking his first and possibly last appearance in the Games.
There is nothing new about Thai success in the Olympic boxing competition: the country has been able to clinch at least a bronze from the sport in every Olympics since 1976, with the exception of 1980 when the Kingdom boycotted the event in Moscow. This remarkable run of results became especially impressive in 1996, with Thai boxers having managed to win gold at each Olympics since Somluck Kamsing's groundbreaking success in Atlanta.
However, hopes have not been high this time, as only three Thai fighters travelled to London, the smallest Thai boxing team for years to compete in an Olympics, and none of those was a distinct medal prospect.
For the diminutive Kaew himself, it has been a long road; the fighter has spent most of his career in the shadows. Even though he entered the boxing ring at the age of 17 and managed to make it into the national team just three years later, the Kamphaeng Phet native has found his opportunities limited when it comes to representing his country at major international tournaments.
His ability was not in doubt, but his frame was deemed too small and that was the reason Kaew's successes so far have been limited to titles at the regional sporting event, the SEA Games. The veteran, though, eventually got his chance to chase his Olympic dream and he grabbed it with both hands by becoming the first Thai to book his berth in London. Inspired by Somjit Jongjohor's heroics in Beijing four years ago when he captured gold at the age of 33, Kaew was determined to make the most of his belated Games opportunity.
He showed that determination in his quarter-final bout against Aleksandar Aleksandrov of Bulgaria, producing a solid display to claim an impressive 16-10 win and at least a bronze. With only the Russian standing between him and the gold-medal fight, Kaew said he has nothing to lose.