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An Olympic gold Thailand can never forget : On July 13th , 2008

It was 1996 in Atlanta, where the Centennial Games of the Olympiad was held.

The International Olympic Committee had voted Atlanta over Athens and the parade of nations to mark the opening ceremony was unique. The athletes entered the arena from top of the stadium and descended to the field instead of coming through the tunnel.

The number of participants passed the 10,000-mark and they hailed from 197 nations. All eyes at the ceremony were on Muhammad Ali, who as Cassius Clay won the light-heavy boxing gold in Rome.

I still remember Ali, with his unsteady hands caused by Alzheimer's disease, lighting the cauldron. Joe Frazier, his arch-rival in professional boxing, was unhappy that he didn't earn that honour.

The Centennial Games were significant in many ways. Five new sports - beach volleyball, mountain biking, lightweight rowing, women's football and softball - were added.

The soccer competition - an Under-23 tournament - saw each qualifying team being allowed three professionals with their age nor World Cup experience not withstanding.

Of the 53 nations which won gold medals, Thailand was one, and that brings me to the story I am going to relate.

Thailand had participated in the Olympics for 44 years and the first medal it garnered was in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal where the late Payao Poontarat earned a bronze in boxing.

Thawee Ampornmaha rose to fame in 1984 when he won a silver medal behind Jerry Page of the US in the light-welterweight division.

In 1996, Somluck Kamsing, who was born in a bus while his mother was being rushed to hospital in Khon Kaen and was raised at home on a wooden floor, is the hero I am focusing attention on in this Olympic year.

His father Daeng, a former Muay Thai exponent, had taught Somluck and his younger brother Somrot, the Thai art of self-defence and told them that they would have to earn their living through Muay Thai because he was poor and could not help them.

They accepted the challenge. Somluck was only three years old when his father began his lessons.

Later, he made his debut in a temple fair and wrote a fabulous David and Goliath story.

Young and only 20 kilogrammes in weight, he faced a severe test. He fought a much stronger and tougher opponent at the fair. Using the fine art his father had taught, which included swift and stunning kicks plus elbow thrusts, he registered a sensational victory over a much stronger and heavier opponent. Somluck earned 90 baht as his purse.

That initial success opened the road to success. He took part in all temple fairs and was unbeaten. He graduated to the district level and with his all conquering style beat the best in the provinces around Khon Kaen.

However, trouble started when the boxing gym owner didn't pay him well. Hence his father disputed the payments handed out to him. Like most gym owners who punish their charges, he was sidelined and was left in cold storage.

But the uncertain situation didn't last long. Another gym owner who had witnessed Somluck's talent and his potential bought over his contract over and moved him to Bangkok, paying him 8,000 baht which was US$200 then.

In Bangkok, Somluck earned admission into Phadungsit Pittaya, a school which has produced several Queensbury rules champions.

Like a duck to water, he took to the Queensbury rules of boxing and soon earned prominence. He took part in the inter-schools boxing championships and won.

The Royal Thai Navy, which recruited him and gave him a big break, picked him to fight in the Inter-Services Boxing Championships. But his maiden appearance wasn't successful. He suffered defeat. That setback didn't stop him. He persevered with his efforts and trained tirelessly. The following year he topped the Inter-Services Championships.

He was picked for the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games but failed to get past the first round. He didn't go to the 1993 SEA Games and had to face a special test to prove that he was fit enough to take part in the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima.

In Hiroshima, while all the gold medal hopes flopped he silenced everyone with a series of sensational performances which finally earned him and Thailand its only gold medal.

However, that honour didn't earn him an automatic place in the Atlanta Olympics.

In the first two qualifying contests he failed and barely squeezed into the team by winning the third qualifier.

Somluck took to heart and trained hard for Atlanta. His grit and determination under the keen and watchful eyes of Cuban coach Juan Fontanils saw a different Somluck in action in Atlanta.

He marched from victory to victory. Each time he entered the ring he carried the picture of His Majesty the King saying this was the inspiration that made him fight at his best.

That year the country was celebrating the 50th Anniversary of His Majesty's Accession to the Throne or the Golden Jubilee of the Reign.

"I wanted to do everything I could to make His Majesty's Golden Reign well known all over the world. Each time I carried his picture, the whole world learned about His Majesty and how much we love him," Somluck told this scribe after his outstanding victory in the final over hot favourite Serafin Todorov of Bulgaria.

Todorov had won three gold medals in the World Championships and had defeated America's famed Floyd Mayweather in the semi-finals in a close contest.

He was naturally the gold medal favourite. But Somluck boxed brilliantly to win the fight 8-5, causing the biggest upset in Atlanta.

He walked jubilantly round the ring, carrying His Majesty's picture. The whole world learned a lot about Thailand's outstanding monarch and his Golden Reign.

Gen Chetha Thanajaro, then president of the Olympic Committee of Thailand, and Thailand's amateur boxing supremo Maj Gen Taweep Jantararoj as well as a packed stadium in Atlanta with thousands of Thais in the US and around the world witnessed this epic history-making golden victory to mark His Majesty's Golden Reign.

Somluck praised his boxing coach Fontanils for guiding him to win for Thailand its first Olympic gold medal.




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