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Thailand's Women Lead The Nation To Olympic Glory

Thailand's Women Lead The Nation To Olympic Glory


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- This Buddhist kingdom achieved surprise enlightenment at the Athens Olympics when five of its daughters defied popular expectations that Thai females should be shy and delicate.

Instead, the five women won two gold medals and two bronze for weightlifting, plus another bronze in taekwondo.

A light welterweight boxer, Manus Boonjumnong, also won gold for his fast punching against his Cuban opponent.

Thai boxer Worapoj Petchakoom won silver when he beat up another Cuban in the bantamweight final.

A relatively obscure male boxer, Suriya Prasathinpimai, also nabbed a bronze in the 75-kg class.

Thailand's total of eight Olympic medals was unprecedented.

But the five women who helped make it possible impressed many Thais the most.

Thais traditionally do not view their country's females as capable of winning awards through sheer muscle power and physical skill.

Women hold high government posts and run businesses in Thailand, but are barred from holding the same lofty rank as men within Thai Buddhism's clergy.

Women also suffer unequal treatment when marrying foreign men and are liable to lose their right to own real estate in Thailand. Thai men who marry foreign women have no such misfortune.

Thailand's nationwide bliss over their five Olympic women, however, turned sour last week when a Thai politician suddenly snatched one of the women's gold medals, rushed back to Bangkok and appeared in news photos grinning next to the shiny metal.

Deputy Prime Minister Suwat Liptapanlop claimed he wanted to show weightlifter Udomporn Polsak's gold to the prime minister.

"Why should I want to see it, when I already saw it on TV?" a perplexed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told reporters after the unseemly affair blew up in the Thai media.

Thai Internet chat groups and websites vented harsh sarcasm against Mr. Suwat for his snatch-and-bask antics.

French editorial cartoonist Stephane Peray skewered Mr. Suwat in the Nation newspaper by surrounding him with sweaty, grasping Thais begging to hold the gold medal alongside sharks, a snake and a Lord of the Ring's character hissing: "Let me see the preciousss!"

In the cartoon's background, a tearful Ms. Udomporn served drinks next to a caption mocking "the correct way for the Thai elite to treat a poor rural girl."

"The government never supports sports, but when someone wins, it steals all the credit," Senator Kraisak Choonhavan, an outspoken critic of the administration, said in parliament.

The physical proportions of Thailand's female weightlifters also attracted satire, prompting Chiang Mai-based Pim Kemasingki, who runs Citylife magazine, to write an open letter castigating a Thai television presenter who mocked the female weightlifters' bodies.

The TV presenter was "implying that there was something wrong with their bodies too, just because they didn't look like the typical stick insects you see in the Thai entertainment industry," Ms. Pim wrote.

"I am overweight and frankly am just fed up" with such emphasis on skinny Thai females, Ms. Pim added.

All eight Olympic winners will enjoy parades, cash bonuses and other perks when they return to Bangkok on Tuesday (Aug. 31).

Financially-stricken Thai Airways International promised all Thai gold medal winners would receive free tickets worth one million baht (24,390 US dollars), while silver medallists would get 500,000 baht (12,195 US dollars) worth of tickets, and bronze awardees could pick up 300,000 baht (7,317 US dollars) in tickets for future flights.

The winners' families also jumped into the spotlight, sticking out their hands and asking for goodies amid the euphoria.

Midway through the Olympics, the mother of Sgt. Worapoj reportedly asked for her boxer son to be promoted from his army rank of sergeant if he won gold.

Surat Thani's governor said cash was being collected for the sergeant even though he ultimately scored silver.

Provincial officials claimed they would upgrade a flood-prone, three-kilometer dirt road with fresh asphalt, plus a bridge, to link Sgt. Worapoj's village to a main road because he focused pride on their isolated place, set amid palm and rubber plantations.

The winners of gold medals were expected to receive even more rewards in their hometowns and by the government.

Critics meanwhile said Thailand would have won more medals if the government spent more on sports facilities for youngsters instead of crowing about the winners' achievements and hogging the glory after medals were handed out.

Early in the Athens games, the most famous performers were the two women, Pawina Thongsuk and Ms. Udomporn, who both won gold for weightlifting.

Ms. Pawina, in the 75-kg class, successfully pumped the weights above her head while Ms. Udomporn, in the 53-kg class, similarly shoved a load toward the ceiling.

Two other Thai women won bronze for the same heavy metal sport -- Wandee Khamiam and Aree Wiratthavorn -- in the 58-kg and 48-kg class respectively.

Throughout Thailand, people gaped at TV screens which repeatedly showed the four women in all their squat-and-thrust glory as cheers and applause filled restaurants, street markets, living rooms and wherever else fans clustered to marvel at what their country's women could do.

Queen Sirikit also congratulated Ms. Pawina and her team.

Yaowapa Burapolchai, 19, became the fifth female winner when she scored a bronze in the women's under-49-kg flyweight class for taekwondo, but wept at not being able to achieve gold.

"Yaowapa is stronger than a normal girl," Pimol Srivikorn, secretary-general of the Taekwondo Association of Thailand said in the Bangkok Post.

"She is fast and skilful. She has been training with men."

*****

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is www.geocities.com/glossograph/


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