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Winter 01
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From the Land of Smiles
Benjamin Malcolm

"A World of Thai Sports"

You have ten seconds - name a famous athlete from Thailand.

Ten, nine, eight …

What … is there someone new playing for the Mets? Has Major League Baseball pulled another promising pitcher out of Southeast Asia?


Seven, six, five …

A high flying NBA prospect out of some Bangkok high school? A defensive tackle in the NFL from the rugged mountains of the northern city of Chiang Mai? A Major League Soccer striker with "tricky" speed?


Four, three, two, one …

Michael Chang … Michele Kwan … Vijay Singh … ?

No! … but that last guess hit the right sport.


Time’s up.

The answer is … Tiger Woods.

OK, he’s not exactly babbling in Thai in his latest car commercial or spending quality time on the beaches of Koh Samui, but Tiger is without a doubt the most famous athlete connected to Thailand. His mother is Thai, which means that at least half of Woods is Thai.

All right, I’m reaching a bit … but it’s true, and the Thais hold onto him as one of their own. I also like to think of it as the emergence of the Thai athlete. A new kind of athlete and sports industry for the new century.

I mean … how bored are you with the sports in the United States?

Aren’t you a little burned out by the bloated monster that is the U.S. sports industry? I know I’ve had it with the loser millionaires who haunt the ESPN broadcasts.

For me, there’s a whole new obsession waiting to be discovered in Asia. The sports scene here is refreshing, like stepping back and seeing minor league baseball or a Little League game after too many games at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Like watching Salvadorean immigrants playing soccer on some field in Maryland instead of trooping down to RFK Stadium and watching another Major League Soccer fiasco. Like watching some streetball after viewing Bill Walton and his bland associates and their BORING NBA playoff coverage.

I don’t mean talent here necessarily, although there is plenty of talent involved. I mean a sense of raw energy you find after you’ve been spoon-fed in your easy chair by some statistics-spewing, marketing-savvy sports corporation.

Take the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as an example.

Thailand didn’t go to Atlanta with a very big squad, only forty-two athletes. One of them, Thai boxer Somrak Komsing, fought his way through several opponents, before beating Bulgarian Serafim Todorov for the country’s FIRST EVER gold medal in the Olympics.

How many gold medals did we get? 100-something? How many of them can you name? You ever wonder what the gold-medal winning rowing team has been up to lately? Have you seen them in soap operas or watched them travel along ticker tape parades through New York City?

All right, I know … the U.S. is approximately 50,000 times bigger than Thailand, and the weight of expectations are that much larger. We’re supposed to win everything in sight (expect for soccer). But let’s face it. We’ve become so fat and bloated with winning in so many sports that we are dulled to it. The story in the U.S. during that Olympics was whether we’d be able to take triple digits in gold medals.

For his solo gold medal, Komsing got rewarded with a bunch of cash, a pickup truck, met with the king, got paraded around the country to all sorts of speaking events, and eventually worked his way into Thai daytime soap operas.

Now, let me just step back for a minute. I have to admit that I grew up with the Red Sox. I grew up hating the "whoops, we won another championship" Yankees. I also root for the U.S. soccer team in its ongoing battle for respect. And when those teams win it all and cultivate the "oh jeez, it’s lonely at the top" sense of entitlement, then I’ll probably get bored with them as well.

Think about your own most exciting sports memory.

Is it the 1980 Miracle on Ice? Is it the 1986 World Series? Is it that wrestler from Iowa defeating the great Soviet behemoth in the Australian Olympics? Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France every year?

The idea that all those share is the thought of overcoming great obstacles (unbeatable Russian athletes or a 3-2 World Series disadvantage) or some great limitation (say testicular cancer), and for a brief moment in time, they spark our imaginations.

The Thais have this in spades as a country — a sense that while they can compete and do well at sports, they’re a bit of a ways from becoming champions. They’re perpetual underdogs. In Asia, you’ve got to beat the Koreans, and Japanese, and Chinese if you’re going to get anywhere. When the Thais win here, it stands out.

The Thais are not constant participants in all facets of the world scene, although there are some rising swimmers, golfers, and tennis players on the world stage, and some of their soccer players star in Japan and Europe. Their best athletes are probably the kickboxers and the takraw players, who you’ll never see anywhere outside of Southeast Asia, unless Jean Van Damme gets to making Kickboxer XXXV. You can include snooker and badminton on this list as well. The big sporting event is almost always the annual Southeast Asian games.

Kickboxing and Takraw, by the way, are fascinating things unto themselves. Takraw is the Indonesian-Malaysian-Thai version of volleyball, played with a rattan ball and the feet. Players usually spike the ball by heading it down after leaping in the air, or by performing a bicycle kick toward the net. You can block with your back, by throwing your body into the air.

The Thai men’s national soccer team has made some waves recently, and they search for respect as much as the Americans do.
The latest installment of their story is the current offer the Thai Football Association has made. For every win the team has in the qualifying round, the Football Association will pay them two million Baht. For every tie on the road, the team receives one million Baht.

They haven’t been winning much money.

Thailand has been through a brutal qualifying round, which they started by flying through Iraqi no-fly air space for their first game on the road in Baghdad. Other participants in their group include Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. The Thais are out of it at this point, as they either had to win their division or pull out a wild card and go against the fifth-seeded South American team.

One of the biggest stories in the last five years was the volleyball team (staffed by several transvestites), which captured a national men’s title. They would appear at games in full makeup, and wailed on anyone that took the court against them. Their story appeared as a major motion picture here.

Where do you get that in America?

Then there’s female weightlifting champ Khassaraporn Suta. She bagged the first ever medal for a Thai female in Australia after the original winner was tagged for failing a drug test.

See how interesting sports can be?

So … here’s what you should do. I recommend cheering for your local Thai athletes whenever you can. Demand snooker coverage in your area. Look for the red, white, and blue flag at the Olympics (their flag has the same colors as the U.S.), and revel in the exploits of Tiger Woods.

Well, then again … just know that he’s half-Thai. If he isn’t part of the corporate sports deal in America, I don’t know who is.

Or pick your own country to cheer for … beat the bushes for an underdog … Kenyan cross country skiers, the Faroes Islands men’s soccer team, Japanese women’s hockey teams … the possibilities are endless.

There’s a world of sports to root for!

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