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|August 21, 2000||
Cuba gives Thais fighting chanceStuart Grudgings in Tokyo
Helped by a little Cuban magic, Thailand's fighters are looking to seal their growing reputation as a boxing power when they step into the Olympic ring in Sydney next month.
The kingdom earned its status as Asia's dominant boxing nation by racking up five golds at the 1998 Asian Games and coach Juan Fontanils, who hails from the Caribbean boxing powerhouse, aims to turn that into success on the biggest stage.
Other Asian nations have medal hopes in the event, especially in the lighter weight categories, but with traditional boxing superpowers America and Cuba on the scene they may remain no more than hopes.
"We will try for a better record in the Sydney Olympics than Atlanta where we got one gold and one bronze. We aim to get three medals. That is our dream," Fontanils told Reuters.
The Thai team's nine boxers all came up through the ranks of Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, which Fontanils believes gave them valuable early exposure to the ring.
The Cuban believes seven of the nine are in with a medal chance, making it a stronger team than four years ago, but he has worries about the form of the team's two stars.
Somluck Khamsing, who became an instant national hero by winning Thailand's first ever Olympic gold in Atlanta, is only 60 percent fit and needs to work hard in the remaining weeks, Fontanils said.
The featherweight, who combines quick footwork with a deadly punch, could claim a rare double in Sydney, becoming only the second boxer from the non-communist world to win two golds.
Thailand's other gold prospect is light-flyweight Suban Panknown. He already has several big tournaments under his belt but his current form is shaky, according to Fontanils.
Asian boxers had one of their best Games ever in Atlanta, walking away with three silvers -- the Philippines, Tonga and South Korea -- and a bronze (Thailand), as well as Somluck's gold.
But the standards will be higher than ever in Australia.
For the first time, countries have had to put their Olympic hopefuls through regional qualifying tournaments rather than simply selecting their best fighters. Organisers hope this will produce a tournament high on skill and aggression, and low on the farcical mismatches that have tarnished previous Olympics.
Other bad news for minnows is that the United States is reported to be fielding its best boxing team ever, while mighty Cuba is sending a full complement of 12 fighters. In every weight category there will be a Cuban waiting.
Philippine boxers shouldn't be overawed, however, as they have an enviably consistent record in recent Olympics, winning a medal of some colour at each of the past three Games.
Hopes for the nation's first ever Olympic gold are resting on three or four good prospects, including flyweight Arian Lerio, who won the prestigious Liverpool tournament in Britain last year.
A potential rival in that weight class is South Korea's Kim Tae-kyu, who will arrive in Sydney carrying a heavy burden of expectation after winning the 1999 Asian championship, disposing of a Kazakh Olympic silver medallist in the final.
Despite the supposedly tougher qualifying regime, host Australia will field a team of 10 boxers, their biggest since 1964. But with little medal pedigree in the event, home fans may be better off buying tickets for the swimming pool.
One of the biggest cheers of the Games may go to an Asian boxer before he has even thrown a punch.
Victor Ramos, a lightweight, is one of nine Olympians from East Timor competing in Sydney after the former Portuguese colony won its independence from Indonesia last year.
Lucky just to be alive after he was threatened and beaten by pro-Jakarta militia men as East Timor descended into chaos last year, the 30-year-old is not just making up the numbers.
He used to be the Indonesian champion and won a silver at the Southeast Asian Games in 1997. "We pray to God and ask his help in winning a medal for Timor," he told Reuters recently.
(With additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan in Bangkok newsroom)
Mail Sports Editor
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