Virachai Tanasugarn in Yokohama
Virachai Tanasugarn in Yokohama

 

The Indonesians and the North Koreans were in Tokyo. They were only one day away from setting foot in the National Stadium and parading before 70,000 cheering spectators at the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on Saturday, October 10, 1964. But on Friday, October 9, the national teams of those countries, hundreds of athletes, coaches and administrators, abruptly turned around and went home. Many cried as they waited to board the trains away from Tokyo, and their chance at competing at the highest level.

Virachai Tanasugarn was on the Thai national Olympic team, a guard on his country’s basketball team. He was in Tokyo to play in a qualifying tournament with nine other national teams, with the chance to play in the beautiful Kenzo Tange Gymnasium Annex, and the hope of competing in the Olympics. And like the Indonesians and the North Koreans, he did not stay in Tokyo long enough to participate in the Games. But unlike the Indonesians and the North Koreans, he left with a sense of adventure and excitement.

Thai basketball team in Yokohama
National Thai basketball team in Yokohama; Tanasugarn is #13.

From September 25 to October 4, ten teams vied in the qualifying round for four spots, in order to be a part of the 18 national teams to play in the Tokyo Olympics. Tanasugarn was on the Thai team, a spot player on the bench, who was simply excited to be in Japan. Despite starting off well, defeating Indonesia convincingly 85-50, the team proceeded to win only 3 of their 9 matches.

Tanasugarn, like his teammates, did not expect to make the cut. They were there to get experience, like so many of the other athletes from Southeast Asia. This was actually Tanasugarn’s second Olympic qualifier as a basketball player. When he was in Rome with hopes of helping the Thai team make the Olympics, he remembered looking at the spaghetti, cheese and ketchup and having no idea what they were or how to eat them. But when they came to Japan, they were happy to see more familiar food. They walked around Yokohama, went to Kamakura to visit the Big Buddha, and played lots of basketball against much better teams.

Tanasugarn was so confident that the Thai team would not qualify that he had already bought an airplane ticket for California to leave before opening ceremonies. After graduating from Thammasat University, he was encouraged to go to the United States by a cousin who graduated from the University of California Berkley, and was practicing as a medical doctor in California.

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(TOP) Tamarine Tanasugarn, Virachai Tanasugarn, Monica Seles, (BOTTOM) Rose Tanasugarn, the mother of Monica Seles

So unlike the Indonesians and North Koreans, Tanasugarn was excited to be leaving Japan just prior to the start of the Games. At the age of 26, with essentially no English ability, he was embarking on a new life in a new world. He went to a high school in San Francisco that had an adult education program where he learned English, and met his wife to be. He got his JD at the University of West Los Angeles School of Law, but could not find work in the legal field. Eventually, with his wife and mother, he opened up a Thai restaurant in Hollywood named Thai House, which he ran for 8 years.

Through a friend’s introduction, Tanasugarn was able to put his first daughter, Rose, in the Jack Kramer Club, where some of the best tennis talent was being groomed: Tracy Austin, Lindsey Davenport and Pete Sampras. Their coach was Robert Lansdorp, and Rose showed progress as a tennis player. However, after 6 years Rose decided she did not want tennis to be the primary focus in her life, and left competitive play.

While in the United States, Tanasugarn had divorced and re-married, having a daughter with his second wife that they named Tamarine. In 1982, he returned to Bangkok with Tamarine, then just 5-years-old. Tamarine began to focus on her tennis with her father as coach until she was 20, and then proceeded with professional coaches and increasingly competitive tournaments.

Tamarine would go on to become Thailand’s most successful female tennis player ever, reaching the quarter-finals in Wimbledon in 2008 and the Wimbledon doubles semifinals in 2011, climbing as high as #19 in the world, and competing in four Olympics, from 1996 to 2008.

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The writer and Virachai Tanasugarn at Rama Garden Hotel

Her father, Virachai, utilizing all the wisdom and insight he learned from observing Lansdorp and some of the best up-and-coming talent in the world at the Jack Kramer School in the 1970s, and watching first hand his daughter Tamarine rise to world-class levels, embarked on a career of tennis coach. At the Rama Gardens Hotel in Bangkok, he continues to coach tennis at the age of 80.

Little did he know in Tokyo what future lay before him as he embarked the Pan Am flight for America in October, 1964.

He looks at the tennis courts with pride, knowing that his daughter Tamarine, and the success she had, helped build the foundation for tennis in Thailand today.

The Japan’s Women’s Volleyball Team has legendary status, medaling in five straight Olympics from 1964 to 1984, excluding the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games. They fell out of contention over the 1990s and the “oughts”, but regained form taking bronze at the 2012 London Games.

But there the Japanese team was on the evening of May 18, losing significantly in the fifth and final set to Thailand, a nation that has never sent a volleyball team to the Olympics. This was the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) Women’s Rio 2016 Qualifier, and it was being played in the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in Tokyo, the site of Japan’s gold-medal winning performance in the Olympic debut of women’s volleyball.

Japan vs thailand volleyball qualifier
Erika Araki (center) spikes the ball during Japan’s 3-2 Olympic qualifying win

Thailand was tasting it, they could see it – victory. They were up 10-5 in the fifth and final set. (Start watching the above video at theĀ 2 hour 54-minute mark.) Japan served, starting an incredible rally. Thailand received a jump serve, it was returned to the setter waiting at the front of the net, who laid up an easy hit for a Thai striker who smashed it across court, right at a Japanese player who sent the ball out of bounds. The Thai players start slapping high fives. But a Japanese had lunged out of bounds to save the ball and send it across the net to the surprised Thais. Another Thai spike. This time, an amazing one-handed save by the Japanese. The announcer is incredulous. “Has it gone? It’s still in! It’s still in! I can’t believe it.” Back and forth it goes as the Thais re-group. And they have a chance, but their spike sails out. There’s a challenge, but no Japanese fingers touch the ball, and Japan climbs one point closer, 10-6.

They call it momentum. And one could sense it slipping Japan’s way.

Thailand managed to win the next two points to go up 12-6. A poor serve from Thailand made it 12-7. The announcer said, “Can Japan get some Harry Potter magic here and get a few points.” And that’s when it all started to fall apart for the Southeast Asian nation. If they win the set and the match, there’s a very real chance they would eventually qualify for their first Olympics in Rio. But they were on Japan’s home court and they were feeling the pressure.

Japan gets another point to claw closer to 12-8. It’s unclear why watching the broadcast of the match, but Thai coach, Kiattipong Radchatagriengkai, was upset, and challenged the call. The referee from Mexico, Luis Gerardo Macias, denied the challenge, leaving the Thai coach in a huff. Kiattipong calls a time out. When the time out ends and the Thai players go back onto the court, Macias calls the Thai players over to explain something. Macias raises a red card, and suddenly, the score is 12-9. You can hear Kiattipong say in surprise, “aray wa?”, which is a crude way of saying in Thai, “what the heck happened?”

Macias explaining the first penalty to Thai team captain
Macias explaining the first penalty to the Thai team captain

And that is a good question.

But life quickly goes on. Japan serves, the Thai player lets it go, and the ball falls safely inside the lines for the match’s only ace. It’s now 12-10. “Nerves must be jangling on Thailand’s side,” says the announcer. With the crowd roaring, Japan spikes to another point, and are behind by one, 12-11. Kiattipong calls another timeout. Japan serves, takes Thailand’s attack, and blocks for the tying point. It’s now tied, 12-12. Japan serves, sets up for a spike which the Thai defenders can’t handle. 13-12 Japan. That’s seven points in a row.

You can see Kiattipong prowling the sidelines in disbelief. The camera switches to Macias, who has an expression that essentially says, “I told him to shut up and he won’t shut up.” Suddenly, Macias indicates another penalty, and Japan is amazingly given another point by