Olympics: South-east Asia's brightest hopes

Philippine weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz carries the hopes of some 100 million countrymen in what could be her third and last Olympics. The 25-year-old medal hopeful prefers not to talk about her chances in Rio de Janeiro, which is how she deals with the
Philippine weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz carries the hopes of some 100 million countrymen in what could be her third and last Olympics. The 25-year-old medal hopeful prefers not to talk about her chances in Rio de Janeiro, which is how she deals with the pressure.PHOTO: PACE MAGAZINE/FREYO APP

Some are lifters, some swimmers, some magicians with a badminton racket. Some are sons, some daughters. But all of them are children of South-east Asia. As the world's sporting elite gather in Brazil for the 31st Olympic Games, The Sunday Times looks at the region's finest. London 2012 was a disappointment for the 11 countries - their first gold-less Olympics since 1988. But from that failure, a new hope has risen, one that could help make 2016 one to remember for South-east Asia.

Sporting minnows also need bold vision

The cynic could tell them, the shooter and the jumper, that they have little chance. He might laugh at them and say they're too small. He may selectively pick a statistic and sneer that there are 600 million from 11 nations in South-east Asia and not one won a gold at the 2012 Olympics.

But athletes are optimists and they aren't listening. In the Philippines, the weightlifting daughter of a motorised rickshaw driver hikes up mountain trails. In Indonesia, a girl born with smaller lungs makes big leaps in a long-jump pit. In Vietnam, a fine shooter makes do with a small quota of pellets.

They all speak different languages but they share a common geography and carry a joint dream. They come from a South-east Asian clan and they are going to join the tribe of Olympians. They travel in search of medals and memories, relevance and validation. They are the Olympic heirs to Indonesia's Susi Susanti, who won badminton gold in 1992, and proof that their lesser-known nations also matter at this Games.

They go as our ambassadors to introduce our nations to those who skipped map studies. SIN, people ask, where is that? VIE, what's that nation? Strangers hear our anthems and wonder where we're from. And so these are not just athletes we send to Rio, they are geography teachers in short pants. We're trying to beat the world and educate them at the same time.

When we win, people get to know us a little. As Susanti told the New York Times in 1992: "When Alan (Budikusuma, her then-fiance) and I got gold medals in singles in Barcelona, the world knew Indonesia better." When we win, people inadvertently learn about our history. When Thailand's Somluck Kamsing won the featherweight boxing gold in 1996, he held up a picture of his king.

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Little May's big fight

Bright red numerals are beaming from a digital clock on the wall, silently counting each minute in the early morning. No one is awake yet. The janitors have not begun work.

There is only the faint sound of someone walking in the dim and stuffy hall. Slow at first, with small and halting steps, towards the light shining through the glass panes.

The champion is walking to work.

Ratchanok Intanon knows this routine by heart; her days have started this way since she was six.

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Uplifting high hopes

Three times in 2012, Hidilyn Diaz tried to lift 118kg of iron and steel in the clean and jerk, and each time she had to let go before she could hold it over her head. It was just too heavy for the barely 1.52m tall weightlifter.

It was her second Olympics. She was one of just a dozen athletes the Philippines managed to send to London. Her first, four years earlier in Beijing, ended with a promise. London ended with three disappointing letters: DNF - Did Not Finish.

London was a hurried affair. She had only a month and three weeks to prepare; before that, she was still at a local competition. She found herself cramming inside an empty hall in Guildford, near the British capital, where she trained mostly on her own. In hindsight, carrying the Philippine flag at the London opening ceremony might have been another wrong call. "Of course, I was proud. But I felt everyone was looking at me. I felt their expectations, and the pressure that went with it," she said.

Next month, she will get to march behind the flag - as woman paddler Ian Lariba has been given the honour.

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Older, wiser, faster

It is close to dinner time as Joseph Schooling dives into the pool at the South Florida Aquatic Club, just outside of Fort Lauderdale.

While one could just about make out the faint growl of hungry stomachs, the quiet is broken as Schooling and his team-mates break into a sprint while Singapore head coach Sergio Lopez barks out instructions.

Lopez cracks a joke about getting to dinner on time just as Schooling reaches the wall. He wears a smile on his face. It is less than two months to the Olympics, but there is a steady calmness about the 21-year-old.Singapore's main hope for a swimming medal in Rio de Janeiro is completely in his element - focused and relaxed.

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Fields of gold

Morning breaks over Hanoi's Red River as hawkers roll out their food carts and the streets awaken with pedestrians and motorcycles jostling for space.

In this cacophonous city of motion with more motorbikes than households, serenity can be found in the silent and unerringly still form of Hoang Xuan Vinh demonstrating his craft at the National Sports Training Centre's (NSTC) shooting range.

He is Vietnam's top marksman, yet his unmoving face masks the misses that nag at him. Inside a wooden cupboard in his living room are medals in various colours, won at local and world-class competitions, signposting his rise to the highest levels of his sport.

But it is the two lapel pins resting alongside the medals that resonate as strongly with him. Those keepsakes are from the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games and 2012 London Olympics, settings where the veteran had his dreams dashed.

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Making it to the big leap

Maria Natalia Londa launches herself into the air and lands gracefully onto the soft sand of Bali's famous Legian beach, oblivious to the looks from curious tourists in bathing suits under their beach umbrellas.

Earlier, the 26-year-old had jogged along the coast and raced up and down the stone steps nearby, jostling for space with touts, street masseurs and shopkeepers selling sarongs and surfboards.

Her methods may not be the most orthodox, but this is how Indonesia's undisputed queen of jumps has been training. And who is to argue? After all, she has earned the right to take on the world's best at next month's Olympic Games, an event she considers "the biggest dream of my lifetime" .

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Aiming for a bigger splash

When Malaysian diver Pandelela Rinong snagged a podium finish with a 10m platform bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, things were looking optimistic for the young athlete.

The first from her country to nab aGames medal outside of badminton, she found herself thrust into the limelight upon her return.

Four years later, as she prepares for Rio, expectations are running high that she will bring home another medal - a tall order for the 1.59m Sarawakian.

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Breakfast of champions

Some opt for Western. Some go for what sits better with the Asian palate - rice, porridge or noodles. Others have little choice and have to eat for nutrients, not taste. The Sunday Times goes from Bangkok to Texas to break down the calories that go into fuelling South-east Asia's best

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'RINGS OF HOPE'. Print Edition | Subscribe