SINGAPORE — Can Southeast Asia athletes repeat their exceptional 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics medalling performances for the upcoming Tokyo Games? The signs do not look good, even as the nations are sending their talents to a wider range of sports than ever before.
While the region has hardly been a fertile ground for Olympic medals, the Rio Games proved a resounding success as their athletes garnered an unprecedented 18 medals, including four golds. The medal count was by far the most they had ever achieved in a single Games edition.
For a region that has participated in the Olympics since 1924 but started winning gold medals only in 1992, Southeast Asian sports fans were understandably thrilled by the strong medal haul. Yet, in the five years since, they have seen their medalling athletes retire, lose form or, in the disappointing case of the gold-winning Thai female weightlifters, banned for taking performance-enhancing drugs.
With few new sporting talents able to rise up and become medal contenders, the Tokyo Games could see a sharp decline in medal count for Southeast Asian nations.
Heavy burden on weightlifter Diaz
In fact, the most sure-fire gold-medal hope for the region at the Tokyo Olympics comes from a country that has not even won a single gold yet.
Hidilyn Diaz, the diminutive weightlifter who broke the Philippines' 20-year medal drought in Rio with a silver, is one of the favourites to win the women's Under-55kg event in Tokyo.
It would be a momentous occasion if she wins gold, as the Philippines would end their 97-year wait for gold, being the first Southeast Asian nation to take part in the Olympics in 1924.
Not surprisingly, it has become a sizeable burden on the 1.49m-tall Diaz's shoulders, although the 30-year-old has learnt to embrace the pressure.
"Everyone's expecting me to win the gold medal in Tokyo. I have embraced it. I just tell myself to focus on the technique, focus on the work ahead," she told AFP in a recent interview.
"I don't want to promise to win gold, I just want to do it."
Yet, even Diaz is compelled to appeal to Philippine youths to "dare to dream" in a social media post earlier this month, as she hopes there will be more upstarts to replace her once she ends her Olympic quest.
"Be more determined and disciplined and do it because you love it," she said in the post. "This is your dream and you're eager to realise it because you love what you're doing, you love the Philippines, and you love and see the value in sports."
Huge challenge to replace retired badminton greats
The lack of top talents to replace retired ones is perhaps most acutely felt by Indonesia and Malaysia, particularly in badminton, the one Olympic sport the two countries are traditionally strong in.
The Tokyo Games will be the first time since the 2004 Athens Games that Malaysia will be without Lee Chong Wei, the former world No. 1 men's shuttler who was forced to retire in 2019 after struggling to regain fitness from a bout of nose cancer.
Lee had been "cursed" as the perennial bridesmaid, winning three silvers in the men's singles competition from 2008 to 2016, yet he was as reliable a medal source as they come. In his retirement, Malaysia will look to Lee Zii Jia - 2019 SEA Games gold medallist and winner of this year's All-England Open - but it would be a lot to ask of the 23-year-old on his Olympic debut.
Meanwhile, the silver-winning men's doubles pair of Goh V Shem and Tan Wee Khiong did not make the cut for Tokyo, leaving mixed-doubles duo Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying as the only of Malaysia's three Rio badminton silver medallists to head to Japan.
Indonesia will as usual be sending a strong badminton contingent to Tokyo. Yet, they are also struggling to find a replacement for Liliyana Natsir, one of the greatest mixed-doubles players in history, who retired after winning gold in Rio with Tontowi Ahmad.
While the likes of men's singles player Anthony Sinisuka Ginting and the women's doubles pair of Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu will figure among the medal contenders, it will be a tough battle for both amid the highly-competitive events in Tokyo.
Tough going for historic gold medallists Schooling and Hoang
The Rio Games were historic for two Southeast Asian nations as their athletes finally struck gold at the Olympics. Singapore swimmer Joseph Schooling stunned the world by beating his idol Michael Phelps to the men's 100m butterfly gold, while Vietnam's Hoang Xuan Vinh clinched two shooting medals including a gold in the men's 10m air pistol event.
Both were momentous occasions joyously celebrated in both countries. Yet the ensuing years after their gold-medal efforts proved just how exceptional the two athletes were, as very few others in their respective countries were able to reach the lofty benchmarks they had set.
Both Schooling and Hoang will be back in Tokyo to defend their golds, yet much has changed in the five years between the two Summer OIympics.
Schooling followed up his Olympic gold effort with a successful 2018 Asian Games outing, clinching two golds without much problem. Less successful, however, was his performance at the 2019 SEA Games in Manila, where he clinched just four golds (one individual, three team), a far cry from his dominant nine-gold showing in the 2015 edition.
Recent race timings in his pet 100m butterfly event were also far from his 50.39sec gold-winning swim in Rio. With new contenders such as the United States' Caeleb Dressel and Hungary's Kristof Milak eager to displace him on top of the podium, Schooling is facing a tough battle to fend off all challengers again.
Hoang, on the other hand, was at one point not even planning to defend his gold. The 46-year-old had withdrawn from the national team this year and declined to participate in the qualifying tournament in March.
However, with none of the other Vietnamese shooters making the Olympic cut, the Vietnam Shooting Federation turned to Hoang again when it was given an invitational slot by the International Olympic Committee in the men's 10m air pistol, Hoang's pet event.
Can the semi-retired Hoang turn back the clock to land another medal for his country? Like Schooling, the level of difficulty has significantly increased compared to 2016. Without other clear medal contenders from Singapore or Vietnam, the signs are not ideal for both countries to continue reaping Olympic medals in Tokyo.
Thailand reeling from weightlifting ban
Most disappointing of all are the Thailand weightlifters. In 2020, following nine Thai weightlifters having tested positive for performance drugs at the 2018 World Championships, the country has been banned from sending weightlifting athletes to the Tokyo Olympics.
It is a huge blow to the country's medalling hopes, as the weightlifters had brought home two golds, a silver and a bronze from the Rio Games. The two gold medallists, Sopita Tanasan and Sukanya Srisurat, were among those tested positive in 2018 and thus cannot defend their golds in Tokyo.
This leaves taekwondo exponent Panipak Wongpattanakit as the only Thai medallist from Rio taking part again this Olympics, as she tries to maintain or improve on her bronze-medal effort in the women's U-49kg division.
Thailand could also find some joy in boxing, where they had previously won golds in the 1990s and 2000s. The best bet is women's boxer Sudaporn Seesondee, who won a silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games as well as the 2018 Women's World Boxing Championships.
But with the top Southeast Asia sporting nations - as well as countries like Laos, Brunei, Cambodia, Myanmar and Timor Leste which have yet to win an Olympic medial - all struggling to find clear-cut medal contenders, perhaps the fans in the region should temper their expectations for a medal harvest as bountiful as in the Rio Olympics.
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