Vietnam gymnastics begins to flex its muscles

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Gymnast Do Thi Ngan Thuong on the way to winning the gold medal in the balance beam Monday at the SEA Games in Indonesia

Vietnam won 11 out of the 15 gold medals in gymnastics at the ongoing South East Asian Games in Indonesia, and could possibly have swept the board but for the absence of a woman gymnast due to injury.

It is a result of years of dedicated efforts by coaching staff, officials, and young athletes.

The team's coach, Nguyen Kim Lan, said: "Eleven golds in Palembang was a nice surprise for our team. It is the sweet fruit of more than 10 years of investment and serious training."

Indonesian newspapers were full of praise for the Vietnamese gymnasts.

Kompas wrote that fans had not thought they could win 11 gold medals.

The Jakarta Post quoted Indonesian gymnasium coach Eva Butarbutar as saying: "I was really surprised at what Vietnamese gymnasts have done. They had got only two girls, Ha Thanh and Ngan Thuong, at the event while the other girl suffered an injury.

"If they had had all those three, the women's team prize would have been won by them too, and they would have won all the gold medals in gymnastics."

But things were not always so good.

In the 1980s nobody would have foreseen that Vietnamese gymnasts would be able to make such huge strides.

Facilities and equipment were rudimentary then and there were no coaches to teach kids the basics.

Government officials in charge of sports development at the time were not hopeful, thinking Vietnam were way behind the rest of the world.

Nguyen Hong Minh, former director of the high sport achievement department of the General Department of Physical Training and Sports, said: "At that time I had just a few coaches and trainees who seemed good at the sport, so we had lots of difficulty.

"Also, since sufficient investment was not made in the sport, it was impossible to send kids abroad for intensive training. Some trainees got fed up and turned to other sports like wushu or simply quit.

"I asked relevant agencies to send gymnasts to the SEA Games but the officials in charge said Vietnamese athletes were unlikely to win medals and didn't send anyone."

Luckily for Vietnam, some of the trainees persisted. This was first rewarded at the Jakarta SEA Games in 1997 when Vietnam won their first gold through woman gymnast Nguyen Thi Nga in the balance beam.

That spurred more investment in the sport, and Vietnamese gymnasts won four golds at the SEA Games their country hosted in 2003.

However, gymnastics remained a hard sell since some people thought it was all down to home advantage.

It took five gold medals at the 2005 edition in Manila to finally put to rest all skepticism about the quality of Vietnamese gymnasts.

Sports authorities began to up investment in the sport and Vietnamese gymnasts won five more golds in Thailand in 2007.

Vietnam is now the regional powerhouse and can now realistically aspire for higher things.

Last month woman gymnast Phan Thi Ha Thanh won a bronze medal in the vault at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo, Japan.

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