A tribute to King Rama IX: The Royal Sportsman

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His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej made incomparable contributions to Thai sportsmen and women throughout his reign as monarch and influenced a wide spectrum of sports, both in the Kingdom and beyond.

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King Bhumibol’s own examples have always been a great source of inspiration to Thai athletes: for instance, every sailor and sports fan knows that he won a gold medal, coming equal-first with his eldest daughter HRH Ubolratana in the OK Dinghy Class at the South East Asian Peninsular Games on the 16th of December 1967, this day now enshrined and celebrated as National Sports Day in Thailand.

This nautical record is matched by a land-based one, the late King being the only person to have lit the torch opening the quadrennial Asian Games on four occasions, the last time being in Bangkok in 1998, just one day after his seventy-first birthday.

His Majesty was well known as being highly-knowledgeable about many sports having, at various times, participated in skiing, motor racing, ice-skating, badminton, tennis, swimming and even a little golf.

As the then-president of the Thailand Olympic Committee, the late Air Chief Marshal Dawee Chullasapya emphasized when presenting the late King with the highly-prestigious honour of The Insignia of the Olympic Order in December 1987, “The Olympic award was made not only to recognize the King’s prowess as a world-class yachtsman, but also to acknowledge the leading role he has played in promoting all sports – in Thailand, in the region and internationally.”

Another Olympic honour was bestowed upon His Majesty in 2001, when the International Olympic Committee presented him with the IOC’s Lalounis Cup.

In boxing, too, His Majesty proved to be most knowledgeable.  In 2001, president of the World Boxing Council, Dr Jose Sulaiman, in bestowing upon His Majesty the WBC’s Golden Shining Symbol of World Leadership Award, was amazed at the late King’s knowledge of the sport.  In turn, two years later in Mexico City, His Majesty bestowed the title of Second Class Knight Commander of the Most Admirable Order of the Direkgunabhorn on Dr Sulaiman – one of the highest Royal Awards ever to be conferred on a sports official.

HM the late King was also continuously involved in badminton for more than 50 years, playing the sport since 1953.  He granted royal patronage to the Badminton Association of Thailand in 1954 and, over the decades donated trophies for men’s and women’s badminton competitions; provided badminton facilities for national players at the palace and supported players financially through scholarships.

He gave unparalleled support to badminton and his lifetime contribution to the sport was honoured in November 2012 with the inaugural BWF President’s Medal being bestowed upon him by then BWF President Dr. Kang Young Joong.

“His Majesty is truly deserving of this accolade – given at the BWF President’s sole discretion – for a lifetime as an ardent protector and an enthusiastic supporter of badminton,” said Dr. Kang.  “His influence and patronage have undoubtedly impacted the lives of many Thai players who have risen to be among the world’s elite, reaping rewards for themselves, their country and their beloved monarch.”

Throughout his reign, His Majesty consistently encouraged all sportsmen and women everywhere to put sporting spirit above success.

On addressing athletes and officials of the Thai team assembled at Chitralada Palace on the eve of their departure to take part in the 1998 SEA Games in Indonesia, His Majesty commented: “All sports must be played according to the rules.  Show spirit and aim for victory but also look for friendship.  If everybody does their best to win in both sports and friendship, the country will benefit.”

Despite his interest and support of a myriad of sports in the Kingdom, it is undoubtedly sailing with which His Majesty the late King will always be most closely associated and remembered.  One of the best yachting festivals in the region – if not the world – is the Phuket King’s Cup Regatta, established in 1987 to honour His Majesty and sailed every December since, coming up for its 31st anniversary this year.

In 1987 the Regatta was a first of its kind for Phuket – a multidisciplinary sailing event with international and Thailand-based sailors gathering for some fierce on-water competition and friendly onshore celebrations.  Today, the Regatta has grown into the largest sailing event of its kind in Asia, attracting 1,000 plus participants each year and regularly sees over 100 boats take part.

Thailand’s sportsmen and women – particularly the burgeoning army of sailors at sites up and down the Thai coast have indeed been fortunate to have had their own King as an ardent supporter, a leading example and, not the least, the Royal Imprimatur of Thai sports.