Thailand is targeting at least one gold medal as 41 Thai athletes launch their campaigns at the Tokyo Olympics, which start on Friday (July 23) under a sealed COVID-19 “bubble”.
A Thai delegation of 15 male and 26 female athletes will represent the Kingdom in 16 disciplines at the quadrennial sports tournament from July 23 to August 8. The Games were postponed last year due to the pandemic.
At the 2016 edition in Brazil, the country won two gold medals thanks to female weightlifters Sopita Tanasan (48kg) and Sukanya Srisurat (58kg) before finishing joint 35th in the medals table alongside Belgium.
However, Thailand will have to rely on other sports over the next fortnight as its weightlifting team is barred from international events after eight Thai lifters tested positive for banned substances at the 2018 World Championships.
History for taekwondo queen Panipak?
World No 1 taekwondo exponent Panipak Wongpattanakit in the women’s 49kg is easily the country’s best chance of a gold medal in Japan. With two world titles (2015 and 2019) along with back-to-back Grand Slam crowns in 2018 and 2019, the 23-year-old is tipped to bag Thailand’s first taekwondo Olympic gold.
She will be aiming to add to the nine gold medals won by the Kingdom – five from weightlifting and four from boxing – since its Olympic debut 69 years ago at the 1952 Helsinki Games.
But the Sports Authority of Thailand is also eyeing glory in the golf and badminton competitions.
World No 2 badminton mixed doubles duo Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai and up-and-coming golf star Patty Tavatanakit, who took the world by storm by winning the ANA Inspiration major in April, are Thailand’s other main medal hopes.
Meanwhile former world No 1 golfer Ariya Jutanugarn, who has won two titles this season including the LPGA Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational along with her sister Moriya in Michigan last Saturday, is another force to be reckoned with at the Games.
Multimillion-baht bonuses for Thai medallists
Athletes will return home baht-millionaires if they manage to bag a place on the podium. A handsome cheque of Bt12 million will be waiting for each Thai gold medallist while a silver is worth Bt7.2 million and a bronze, Bt4.8 million.
Thailand’s best Olympic performance was at the 2004 Games in Athens where the country won three golds – two from Udomporn Polsak (53kg) and Pawina Thongsuk (75kg) in women’s weightlifting and one from Manus Boonjamnong in men’s light welterweight boxing.
Inside the anti-COVID ‘bubble’
However, with Japan’s COVID-19 infection rate now growing by thousands of cases per day, the International Olympic Committee is working closely with the host to impose tight measures to protect the Games.
All athletes must be vaccinated before they depart for Japan. All members of national delegations, including athletes, must also download a Playbook of protocols to follow strictly during their stay and each must submit their 14-day Activity Plan.
Before departure, each must take COVID-19 tests on two separate days within 96 hours of their flight to Japan and provide proof of negative results. They will also be tested once they arrive at Tokyo airport.
During the Games, participants are required to abide by general protective measures such as wearing masks, washing hands, and maintaining social distance. They will be tracked throughout their stay by an app that they must download to their mobile device.
Athletes must also undergo three days of quarantine in the Athlete Village before being allowed to leave their rooms and start training.
They are not permitted to use public transports and can only travel by dedicated vehicles during their 14-day stay.
Any athlete found to have breached the rules will have to return their ID cards and will be sent back to their home country immediately.
A sample of saliva from each athlete will be collected every morning for COVID-19 tests. Anywho test positive will be notified the same evening.
Even amid the strict protocols, Thai athletes will have to keep their guard up to stay healthy for their medal bids at the Olympiad.
“I’m worried because there will be so many athletes from around the world,” said former badminton world No 1 Ratchanok Intanon, a Thai medal prospect in the women’s singles.
“We do not know what is going to happen. But we have to be highly responsible ourselves, maintaining hygiene safety and staying only with our team,” she added.
Despite the strictest anti-virus protocols, several have already tested positive inside the Athletes Village, including two South African footballers.
The COVID-19 protocols will make this Olympics unique for several reasons.
• Medallists will have to place medals around their necks by themselves instead of having them presented by dignitaries, as in a traditional medal presentation ceremony.
• The Parade of Nations will feature only a small group of representatives from each participating country during the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.
• No spectators will be allowed at the competition and training venues.
• More than 150,000 condoms will be given away to athletes and officials – but only when they return to their countries. Cardboard beds at the Athletes Village are only strong enough to take the weight of one person, which should deter amorous attempts to breach the COVID-19 social distancing rule.
Source: Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS)