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Defeated Thai Boxer Best Epitomizes Olympic Spirit

New America Media, Commentary, Mark Schurmann Posted: Aug 22, 2008

Editor's Note: American swimmer Michael Phelps will return to the United States richer by eight gold medals, but light flyweight Thai boxer Amnat Ruenroeng will return to his homeland sans any medals. Yet the boxer will be a great source of inspiration to his countrymen because for him the road to Beijing was paved with seemingly insurmountable challenges, writes NAM reporter Mark Schurmann, who watched the boxer go down from a cafe in north-west Thailand.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- With eight golds in his bag, American swimmer Michael Phelps may be the greatest Olympian ever. Yet, a light flyweight boxer from Thailand best epitomizes the spirit of the Games, even though he returns to Thailand without a medal.

"From Orphan to Prisoner to a Proud Son of Thailand," exclaimed the Bangkok Post in the wake of Amnat Ruenroengs loss in yesterdays boxing quarterfinals. In Thailand, a sports mad country, Olympic results are front-page news.

Here in the northwest capital of Chiang Mai, locals are eagerly following the fortunes of the Thai boxing team, which started the Olympics with eight competitors. A late afternoon walk here in Chiang Mai reveals that virtually every TV set in 7-Elevens (which are everywhere) to karaoke bars is tuned in to the Olympics. Boxing is clearly a fan favorite.

Yesterday, I watched Ruenroeng lose his quarterfinal match to Mongolian Serdamba Purevdorj with dozens of disappointed Thais at a popular student cafe. The loss cost him his chance at a medal, and has left only two Thai boxers in the competition.

Leaving the ring, Ruenroeng told Thai reporters: "I am happy because this was beyond my expectations," referring to his having reached the quarterfinals.

Not long ago, just getting to the Olympics may have been beyond any ones expectations.

Born in Chon Buri province in South East Thailand, Ruenroeng was abandoned by his mother and left for adoption in the hospital he was born in.

Adopted by a couple in the same province he was, never the less, Ruenroeng was stigmatized because of the dark color of his skin and the afro-kink of his hair. Local authorities believed he was of African origin and declined to register him as a citizen. As a result, Roenroeng was refused entry into school.

Though he attained his identification when his biological mother finally surfaced years later and convinced local authorities that he was indeed her son, at age 15, he found himself uneducated and with few prospects.

Like many poor uneducated Thais, Ruenroeng turned to Muy Thai boxing, an ancient and sometimes brutal martial art that is a national obsession in this country.

Had the American golfer, Tiger Woodsั, who is half-Thai, half-African American, been born under the same circumstances, he may very well have become a Muy Thai fighter himself. Years ago, when I practiced Muy Thai in New York City, I asked the owner of our gym where our trainer, a native Thai, hailed from. The owner answered: "The slums of Bangkok, where else?"

Young, hungry and talented, Ruenroeng soared through the ranks, eventually winning the flyweight title at Lumpini Stadium in Bangkok, the Madison Square Garden of Thailand. Still, his problems persisted.
According to the Bangkok Post, his coaches described him as stubborn, someone who wouldnีt listen. Before winning his title, Ruenroeng briefly left Muy Thai to earn money as a laborer. After winning his title, he fell into drug use, a habit that is taboo in almost all of Asia, including Thailand. As a result he was banished from his team and from Muy Thai boxing.

For the second time in his life, Ruenroeng was alone and penniless.

Desperate, he robbed a tourist in 2005. But he soon turned himself in to the police and confessed. Ruenroeng told reporters: "I did not know what to do. I did not want to return to see my adopted parents. They looked after me for a long time and I did not want to bother them.
"I was imprisoned but at least I had food to eat."

While in prison he learned to box western style. Apparently, the same skills and abilities that gave him success as a Muy Thai fighter propelled him to succeed as a boxer in prison. He won the Thai National Championships, representing the Corrections Department.

Discovered by the president of the Amateur Boxing Association of Thailand, Ruenroeng, upon his release, was recruited into the Thai national team where he once again soared through the ranks of international competition. He scored an Olympic birth at the 2007 World Championships in Chicago.

A southpaw who boxes with both hands down, Ruenroeng is an unconventional fighter in the sometime conventional sport of amateur boxing. With great footwork and the ability to make other fighters miss repeatedly, he is essentially a counter-puncher who uses looping straight lefts, hooks and uppercuts to score points against his opponent. (Think Mohammed Ali.)

It as an entertaining way to box, although it can cost a fighter a victory when judges deem it arrogance instead of legitimate skill.

Ruenroeng's opponent in the quarterfinals, Purevdorj, was almost as slippery, more conventional (hands up) and perhaps a little more aggressive. In the end, the decision seemed almost arbitrary. Both fighters seemed to have fought to a stalemate. But the judges ringside awarded more points to the Mongol. The final score was 5-2.

While reading the account of the fight the morning after, a boy came up to my table and pointed at Ruenroengีs picture in the paper, saying, "Amnat Ruenroeng. Thai."

Though he lost his chance at a medal (and apparently, the millions of Thai Baht that are assured a victory in the Olympics) perhaps recognition from his countrymen, as a countryman, is as golden an achievement for someone who spent 15 years as a foreigner in his country of birth.

Also, with many athletes winning multiple medals, world records falling at a record pace and the almost senseless preoccupation with national medal counts by international media, the awarding of gold, silver and bronze on the podium, the playing of national anthems and raising of flags seem anticlimactic.
After all, millions can admire Phelpsี achievement, but few, if any, can actually identify with it.

For me, the long road to the Olympics for athletes and the sportsmanship they exemplify when there is much more compelling and, perhaps, more memorable.

"Tonight, all prisons in Thailand are sad," said Ruenroeng after his loss.

And, no doubt, inspired.

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