Lifestyle & Belief

Southeast Asia's intriguing Olympians


Malaysian Olympian Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, a heavily pregnant shooter, arrives in London in July, 2012, for Olympic ceremonies.


Lars Baron

London's 2012 Summer Olympics are unlikely to send many Southeast Asian athletes home with gold medals. That's the consensus from professional bookmakers as well as the Wall Street Journal, which has extensively analyzed each region's competitors.

But at least this year's crop of Southeast Asian Olympians isn't boring.

Malaysia: That woman to the right who appears ready to burst is Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi.

She's participating in the 10-meter air rifle competition. Eight months into her pregnancy, the naval officer "will easily be the most heavily pregnant athlete to have taken part" in the Olympics, according to the BBC. Undeterred by her squirming fetus -- a liability in marksmanship -- Suryani isn't favored to win a medal.

But how do you not root for a pregnant woman with a firearm?

Thailand: Pimsiri Sirikaew is not the sort of woman you find in Thai Airways ads: prim, gentle, an orchid in her hair. But Thai Airways stewardesses cannot lift weights heavier than two Sumatran tigers over their heads.

Pimsiri can. Even though she's only 4'11".

Female weightlifting is a major medal-earner for Thailand. The 1996 Olympics were the last games that sent Thai female weightlifters home without a medal. They claimed two golds in 2000 and one in 2008.

This phenomenon has firecely proud Thais swarming around TV sets when their female weightlifters compete. In addition to Pimsiri, they'll be rooting for Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarakoon. That name, long even by Thai standards, was not given to her at birth. It was chosen by a fortune teller in advance of the Beijing Olympics. Prapawadee switched her name for good luck and it worked: she flew home from Beijing with a gold medal.

Indonesia and Vietnam: How does the U.S. position itself to win at Badminton, a sport dominated by Asians at the Olympics? By fielding two guys born in Southeast Asia. According to Reuters, America's most fearsome Badminton duo is comprised of a player born in Indonesia, the newly minted U.S. citizen Tony Gunawan, and Howard Bach, who emigrated from Vietnam at the age of two. 

Gunawan definitely has the goods. Before gaining American citizenship, he earned an Olympic gold medal for Indonesia in 2000.

Cambodia: Japanese comedian Neko Hiroshi is widely known for being 4'9" and impersonating cats. But that's not enough for Neko (Japanese for "cat"), who longs to compete in the Olympics for his adopted home, Cambodia.

Neko is not the fastest Cambodian citizen. That would be Hem Bunting, a runner who was once so poor that he slept at his training stadium, according to AFP. But Cambodia's government, citing discipline problems, would not send Hem to the Olympics.

Instead, they considered Neko, an amatuer marathon enthusiast. However, the 34-year-old was disqualified because he's held Cambodian citizenship for less than one year, according to Voice of America.

That leaves Cambodia with no Olympic marathon competitor this year.

Neko's running technique can be observed in this music video, which depicts Neko fleeing in cat-like fashion from four dancing Japanese schoolgirls.