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Tuesday July 22, 2008

Few medals to show from Asean's half a billion people

SINGAPORE: The Asean bloc of nations might comprise 10 countries with a combined population of more half a billion people, yet they could only manage 12 medals between them at the last Olympics in Athens.

Few are banking on any dramatic improvement at Beijing.

Rare winner: File picture of Indonesia's Taufik Hidayat kissing the gold medal he won at the 2004 Olympic Games.

Of those 12 medals, Thailand won eight, including three gold, while Indonesia claimed the remaining four, including one gold.

Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Myanmar came away empty-handed and are desperate to do better this time round.

Thailand again has the best chance for glory. Its forte is boxing and women’s weightlifting.

Manus Boonjumnong is back to defend his light welterweight title while Athens bantamweight silver medallist Worapoj Petchkoom is also on their team.

The kingdom has a knack of producing promising boxers and one of the best of the new bunch is middleweight Angkarn Chomphuphuang, who makes his Olympic debut.

But Udomporn Polsak and Pawina Thongsuk will not be defending their weightlifting gold medals, having quit the sport. Thailand has also lost their Chinese weightlifting coach Zhang Jia Min, who has returned home.

Sprawling Indonesia, with 219 million people, produced just one athlete capable of beating the world in Athens – temperamental badminton star Taufik Hidayat.

He returns but is struggling for form, having slipped to seventh in the rankings and faces an uphill task against China’s world class shuttlers led by Lin Dan and Bao Chunlai.

Athens badminton bronze medallist Sony Dwi Kuncoro will also be in action.

Like Thailand, Indonesia’s women have proven a hit in the weightlifting arena. Of the country’s 20 Olympics medals since their first Games in 1952, four have been from lifting weights, one in archery and the rest badminton.

An added incentive this time round is a significant cash bonus of one billion rupiah (US$106,000) to any Indonesian claiming the ultimate prize.

Asian nations dominate the world of badminton and that’s where Malaysia will be hoping to add to its all-time tally of one silver and two bronze Olympics medals.

Lee Chong Wei in the men’s singles is a key hope. Currently the world number two, he scored a morale-boosting win over the top-ranked Lin Dan at the Thomas Cup in May. Their men’s doubles pairs will also be in contention.

Over 68 years and 16 Olympic Games, the Philippines have managed just two silver and seven bronze medals, in boxing, athletics, and swimming. Their last success was in Atlanta in 1996 and the signs for Beijing are not good.

Their strength has traditionally been in the ring but their reputation took a battering by a dismal performance in the Olympic qualifying rounds.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, only one boxer, light flyweight Harry Tanamor, will represent them at the Games, compared to the usual turnout of around five.

Tiny Singapore has been positioning itself as a sports hub – it will host the inaugural Youth Olympics in 2010 – and is keen to see its athletes make a breakthrough on the world stage.

It is aiming to win its first medal in 48 years following weightlifter Tan Howe Liang’s silver at the 1960 Rome Games.

Badminton, table tennis and sailing are key events, with even a minor medal a major achievement from the city-state.

Vietnamese weightlifter Hoang Anh Tuan, who claimed the 56kg division title at the Asian Weightlifting Championships in April, has secured a berth to Beijing, and will be looking for Vietnam’s second Olympic medal.

The other was bagged by Tran Hieu Ngan who grabbed a taekwondo silver at Sydney Olympics in 2000.

The rest of the Asean contingent will be hoping to build on the experience. – AFP

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