When Yaowapa Burapolchai bowed her head to receive a bronze medal in taekwondo at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, it marked a historic moment in Thailand's sporting culture.
Yaowapa Burapolchai during the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Just a few years earlier, Thailand sat in relative obscurity on the international taekwondo stage. Few in Thailand cared much about the sport and the Taekwondo Association of Thailand was virtually without sponsorship and money, and was struggling with nepotism and other internal problems.
National coach Choi Young Seok from South Korea was ready to walk away. But after Yaowapa became Thailand's first ever Olympic medallist in taekwondo, a large number of her compatriots have been successful on the international stage.
Buttree Puedpong won a silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Chanatip Sonkham took home a bronze at the 2012 London Games, while others have won in major tournaments including the World Championships, Asian Games and World University Games.
Thanks to Yaowapa's achievement, the popularity of the sport exploded on home soil as well. Taekwondo gyms and schools can now be found everywhere across the country including at department stores.
Now, Thailand is considered a powerhouse in the sport.
How did a country that was once unknown on the international taekwondo scene suddenly rise so quickly?
"It is a testimony for what good management can do," said Pimol Srivikorn, president of the Taekwondo Association of Thailand.
Pimol, a businessman and a part-time university teacher, didn't have a background in sports when he took the reins of the organisation in early 2000s.
He had never tried taekwondo although he practised Muay Thai when he was young. But when Thavatchai (now Vanasathana) Sajakul, then TAT president, asked Pimol to lead the struggling organisation, he saw an opportunity he couldn't pass up.
"I saw it as a challenge," he said. "I saw the potential for the sport. It is a combat sport and many Thais have Muay Thai in their blood. So I thought I would give it a go, and I took the job."
There were more than a few hurdles to climb. Cleaning up the organisation's internal problems was first on the list.
Pimol and his team worked to increase transparency within the organisation and introduced nutrition and professional training regimens for national athletes.
"There was [also] a lot of bias in selecting national athletes. You may call it nepotism," he said. "I got rid of all of that. No taking sides. Good players get on the team, not good players won't get on the team. It is as simple as that."
His plan took shape quickly. Thailand's talent pool began to swell as the best athletes made their way to the national side.
Seeing the changes, national coach Choi decided to stay on and has since considered Thailand his second home.
"From that point, we started to get better and better," said Pimol.
Yaowapa's Olympic bronze medal winning performance was the next leap forward. It was the first time a Thai won an Olympic medal in taekwondo.
With her success, taekwondo became only the third sport in which Thailand has earned a podium finish at the Olympics.
Pimol put his marketing skills to work right away.
"Yaowapa was cute and very personable," he said. "She spoke very well, and raised the profile of taekwondo. She was very popular, and after that the whole country started training taekwondo. I tried to capitalise on that wave."
Pimol began promoting the sport in cities around the country. He was able to secure sponsorships from Government Housing Bank and private companies.
The TAT also started training referees and judges to ensure fairness and hosting workshops for national coaches to teach other trainers.
The investment has paid off handsomely. Since the 2004 Olympics, Thailand has continued their winning ways _ picking up medals at several international events.
"I believe that sports can unite countries," said Pimol. "Sports help build character that you can't learn in school."
Pimol's ultimate target is helping his athletes win the country's first ever Olympic gold in taekwondo.
"Obviously we want to win an Olympic gold medal but it is still a long way to the 2016 Games," he said. "We want to see the smiles on the faces of the Thai people. Once you have that, more people will take up sports.
"Taekwondo teaches you how to be a good kid, a good person, a good son, a good daughter, a good friend. When I see Thai people cheering and smiling when we win medals, I know more kids will want to do it. That is my motivation."
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