Held in Hangzhou, China, this year’s Asian Games brought together top-tier athletes from 45 nations for a celebration of sport. Needless to say competition was fierce, but through it all Thailand managed to attain a personal best, taking home a total of 12 first-place golds. It was, indeed, a medal milestone!
(Hero image: Taekwondo star Panipak “Tennis” Wongpattanakit in a match against China’s Guo Qing in the women’s 49kg final – Photo by Getty Images)
The 19th edition of the Asian Games wrapped up early last month in Hangzhou, China (having been postponed from 2022 due to the pandemic). Held every four years, this international, multi-sport competition brings together top-tier athletes from all 45 member nations affiliated with the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA). Over the course of 16 action-packed days – from September 23 to October 8 – amazing athletes from the region took part in sporting events that ran the gamut from badminton to basketball, gymnastics to judo, and rowing to rugby. And while China, the host country, dominated the games with a final tally of 202 gold medals, it proved to be an especially lucky year for Thai athletes, who came home with a record 12 first place golds!
In many sports both the men and the women of Thailand proved their mettle, one example being the first-place finishes in Taekwondo for Panipak Wongpattanakit (Women’s 49kg) and Banlung Tubtimdang (Men’s 63kg). Similarly, both the Thai men’s and women’s teams in Sepak Takraw – that game played with a rattan ball that’s kicked furiously over a net – managed to beat all competitors. Sailing also saw males and females faring well, with top standings shared by M.L. Weka Bhanubandh (Boy’s ICLA4), alongside Noppassorn Khunboonjan (Girl’s ICLA4) and Siripon Kaewduangngam (Women’s RS:X).
In golf, however, it was all about the ladies, with emerging star Arpichaya Yubol stealing the spotlight out on the greens. But in one of the first ever Esports competitions at the Asian Games, it was a young Thai lad by the name of Teedech Songsaisakul who ultimately emerged victorious.
In total, Thailand took home 58 medals – with an additional 14 silvers and 32 bronze – which now puts the country into eighth position in the standings (as compared to 12th spot in 2018). It’s also worth noting that Thailand did better than any of its ASEAN nation neighbours, which is definitely cause for celebration. So, let’s now take a closer look at some of this year’s breakout sports stars.
Golf is huge in Thailand these days and many of its brightest stars are women, with such superstars as Atthaya Thitikul and Ariya Jutanugarn making headlines in the sports pages. But at this year’s Asian Games the spotlight was firmly on Arpichaya Yubol, who claimed the Women’s Individual gold medal in golf. The competition was held at Hangzhou’s West Lake International Golf Course, where Arpichaya miraculously shot a four-under round of 68 to finish with a 19-under total of 269.
In addition – like the icing on the cake – Arpichya’s win was also instrumental in Thailand being awarded the Women’s Team gold medal, a shared victory which she jubilantly celebrated with her teammates Eila Galitsky and Patcharajutar Kongkraphanon.
Of course, this dynamic 21-year-old, who hails from Saraburi province, has already enjoyed a stellar career in golf. She turned professional in 2017, and in 2018 she won five titles in a row on the Thai LPGA Tour. More recently, in December of last year she earned her card for the 2023 LPGA Tour through qualifying school.
M.L. WEKA BHANUBANDH
Although he’s only 16 years old, M.L. Weka Bhanubandh has enjoyed considerable success in his chosen sport of competitive sailing. At this year’s Asian Games he placed first in the Boy’s ICLA4 (dinghy) competition, helping to bring Thailand’s gold medal standing to an even one dozen.
Previous to the competition in Hangzhou, Weka was awarded the title of Optimist World Champion 2022, which was a huge win for this rising star. The Optimist is the biggest fleet of sailboat dinghies in the world – with all sailors aged 15 and under – and Thailand is a top performer in this class (most Olympians have learned to sail and compete in this class). More recently on Weka’s list of achievements, he won the title of world champion at the 2023 ILCA 4 Youth World Championships, held back in July.
Weka is now competing in the ILCA 4 sailboat (an extremely popular one-person dinghy, formerly known as the Laser 4.7), which is the next step up from the Optimist. As he matures, he will move into the ILCA 6 Youth Men’s and then the ILCA 7 Men’s Olympic class. Hopefully, it’ll be all smooth sailing ahead.
Taekwondo star Panipak “Tennis” Wongpattanakit won a special place in the hearts of her countrymen by cinching the very first gold medal for Thailand at this year’s Asian Games in Hangzhou. This 26-year-old powerhouse from Surat Thani province defeated China’s own Guo Qing in the women’s 49kg final, although the match was not without a touch of drama and a dose of controversy.
When a scoring in favour of Guo was protested by the Thai team, a lengthy review ensued (although the verdict ultimately remained unchanged). Despite this unforeseen challenge, Panipak rallied from 6-0 down in the final round to beat Guo 12-9, resulting in a 2-1 match win overall.
A graduate of Chulalongkorn University, Panipak became a world champion at the 2015 World Taekwondo Championships, claiming a gold medal in the 46kg event – her first world title. A year later she won the bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, followed by a gold at the 2018 Asian Games held in Indonesia. Her second gold in Hangzhou was a cause for celebration, although she later confessed that this would be her last Asian Games. In fact, in a recent interview she revealed that she will retire after the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, where she hopes to be awarded a second gold medal (at the 2020 games in Tokyo she won the gold in the women’s 49kg event, which was also the first Olympic gold medal win for Thailand in Taekwondo, and Thailand’s only gold during those summer games).
When Teedech “TDKeane” Songsaisakul won the gold in the EA Sports FC Online competition (formerly known as FIFA Online 4), he made history by becoming the first individual Esports gold medalist in the Asian Games. Interestingly, he beat out another Thai player, Phatanasak Varanan, in straight sets in the football video game, securing a best-of-three final victory.
For those wondering what on earth Esports is, the name says it all – a combination of “electronic” and “sports”, where players use electronic devices as a platform for competitive activities. The participants, who have finely honed their logical thinking, reaction skills, and hand-eye coordination, go head-to-head in tournaments that regularly draw millions of spectators both on-line and on-site.
As for Teedech, who turned 25 in July, the future couldn’t be brighter. He is a member of FazeClan – a professional Esports and entertainment organisation headquartered in Los Angeles – and his accumulated earnings to date have gone well over the US$200,000 mark.