My son Dashiell, I must stress, is a good international traveler. But a nine-month-old boy appreciates a little diversion, and during my flight from Bangkok to Beijing this month to cover the Olympics, those helping hands came from several rows of Thais sitting nearby. When Dash dropped his yellow duckie, a powerfully built young man in Row 57 obligingly returned it. Another man played peekaboo, his forearms bulging as his hands uncovered his grinning face. Then, a female traveler who how shall I put this? was built rather more solidly than the average Thai maiden, gave my son a friendly wink. I began to suspect something. I looked at one of the men and raised my arms, miming a barbell ascending skyward. He nodded, cheerfully. Dashiell's in-flight babysitters, it turned out, were none other than the Thai Olympic weightlifting team.
There will be around 10,500 athletes competing in Beijing this month; fewer than 100 are internationally famous. In this era of sports as primetime entertainment, where American basketball stars or European footballers can expect gazillion-dollar ad contracts and the adulation of millions of fans, it's easy to forget that most top-flight athletes are normal folks who fly economy and have time to help a kid locate his duckie. Most toil in their designated sports in hours squeezed between, say, school or factory shifts. Weightlifting, in particular, may be one of the Olympics' most fundamental pursuits, but it is not the kind of sport that lures big-name advertisers. Even though Thailand's weightlifting team won four medals at the Athens Olympics four years ago, most Thais on the plane up from Bangkok seemed to have no idea there were medal favorites sitting near them.
The woman who winked at Dash turned out to be Wandee Kameaim, an Athens bronze medalist in the 53-kg class and anchor of this year's Olympic squad. Even though I live in Thailand and am covering the Olympics, I admit I had to Google her name to identify her as the woman on the plane. (I also had to Google another Thai weightlifter, but that was because I was not entirely sure of the spelling of Prapawadee Charoenrattanatharakul, whose surname is also written Jaroenrattanatarakoon). The history of Thai women's weightlifting is short but impressive. The kingdom's first-ever female gold medalist was a weightlifter at the Sydney Games in 2000. In Athens, the female squad won two more golds. China, which dominates weightlifting, will be a formidable opponent, but Thailand's sports officials are predicting at least a medal or two in the discipline.
If any of my fellow travelers does win, they will be treated lavishly by the Thai government on their return, which has promised a generous Olympic bonus of around $310,000 for a gold, $190,000 for a silver and $130,000 for a bronze. (The money will be doled out over a 20-year period, lest athletes blow their cash too quickly.) But for the athletes who don't win big, life will return to normal, sweating anonymously in sweltering gyms. Only the youngest can dream of another moment of glory four years from now at the London Games.
Even when we landed in Beijing, no one at the airport seemed to pay much attention to the Thai weightlifters. They should have stood out in the crowd, these well-muscled men and women hefting giant boxes of tom yum (hot and sour) instant noodles off the baggage carousel. (I guess we now know the secret ingredient to their success.) But as they pushed their luggage carts full of noodles past the airport crowds, no one came up for an autograph or asked them to pose for a picture. Dashiell, though, seemed to remember the man who retrieved his duckie. As we left the terminal, he gave a one-toothed grin to Pongsak Maneethong, 14th in the world in the 56-kg weight class at last year's world championships. Pongsak grinned back, the kind of mega-watt smile that might come after an athlete wins a gold.