SEA Games Athletics: Fast and fearless

It is commonly called the Land of Smiles, because of the friendly people.

But Thailand can just as well be dubbed "The Kingdom of Sprinters", for the sheer number of speedsters it has churned out over the years.

After all, in 27 editions of the South-east Asia (SEA) Games, the nation has triumphed a remarkable 16 times in the 100-metres dash, considered the most glamorous event at any Games.

Names like Suthi Manyakas, Anat Ratanapol, Suchart Chairsuvaparb and Reanchai Seehawong (see sidebar) have gone down in Asian track and field folklore.

Next month, Singapore will witness another Thai sprint king in action.

Jirapong Meenapra turns 22 next Monday, and is regarded as the red-hot favourite in both the 100m and 200m events.

The University of Bangkok student announced his arrival at the 2013 SEA Games in Myanmar, where he bagged three gold medals - sprinting to the individual double and anchoring the men's 4x100m relay to victory.

He posted four of the five best 100m times posted by a South-east Asian sprinter last year, managing a personal best of 10.31 seconds twice.

As a point of reference, Singapore's national record, set by UK Shyam in 2001, stands at 10.37.

Speaking to The New Paper in an exclusive interview recently, Jirapong said that he doesn't care about the times he clocks - all he wants is to win.

"I don't want good times, if it means I don't win," said the wiry youngster.

"I just want the gold medal. That's most important to me."

TNP asked Jirapong if he felt Singapore's sprinters Calvin Kang, 25, and 2013 bronze medallist Amirudin Jamal, 28 - the two tasked to challenge Jirapong - would pose any threat to him.

"Calvin is good," Jirapong mused, briefly.

"But I am not afraid of any challenger. I don't care about anybody else. I just know I need to win."

He brushed aside any suggestion that the weight of expectation from his countrymen back home would burden him.

"I am young, but I feel no pressure at all," he said. "I am glad I can bring happiness to the Thai people."

With his triple gold feat in Myanmar, he certainly has brought his country joy.

I remember meeting him for the first time then.

As I sat with Singapore's discus great James Wong in the cafeteria of the Athletes' Village in Naypyidaw, a scrawny boy with neat, short hair and thick-framed spectacles approached our table.

He greeted us with the traditional Thai "wai", bowing while pressing his hands together and lifting them up to his head, then proceeded to ask if Wong had any Singapore pins to exchange, which the 10-time SEA Games gold medallist did.

After the youngster left - with a Singapore flag pin in hand - to join his teammates at the next table, mucking about as youngsters do, Wong said: "That boy's name is Jirapong.

"He's damn young, but already damn fast. Watch him."

The next day, I got the chance. The transformation was startling.

Put a pair of spikes on Jirapong and throw him on a track, and that goofy smile is replaced by a steely scowl.

As we now know, he aced his events and afterwards, he hammed it up for the media.

There was euphoric screaming, fist pumping, and even a few rounds of the "Lightning Bolt", milking the applause, unfazed by the blinding flash of camera bulbs.

He caught a Thai flag thrown to him and performed a little dance for the media.

Fast forward 18 months, and Jirapong says he is excited at the prospect of doing the same in Singapore, at the National Stadium and on its world-class Mondo track, known to allow athletes to clock their best times.

After all, the Republic was where he first caught the eye as a junior sprinter.

He was the anchor for Thailand's Under-16 team that triumphed at the Asian Youth Games here in 2009.

A year later, at the Youth Olympic Games, he finished fifth, racing alongside the world's best junior runners at Bishan Stadium.

Said Jirapong: "I like Singapore. A lot of discipline in Singapore."

Then the cheeky side of him surfaced as he asked: "I want to go to the casino... Can I?"

The Thai athletics officials might have something to say about that.

They, and the rest of the Kingdom, just want him to blaze a trail at the National Stadium.

This article was first published on May 6, 2015.
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