Olympics-Gold-winning Thai can do wonders for team morale

BANGKOK, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Thai teenager Panipak Wongpattanakit kicked her way to taekwondo gold at the Youth Olympics to bring some welcome cheer for a sport that has been battered by recent domestic scandal.

Panipak, 17, claimed her country's first gold at the Nanjing Games by beating Azerbaijan's Ceren Ozbek 21-1 in the final of the women's 44kg division on Sunday and will head to next month's Asian Games hopeful of another medal.

Such success seemed a distant dream in July when the Thai team was rocked by national team fighter Rungrawee Kurasa's accusation that head coach Choi Young-seuk had assaulted her after she lost a first round bout at the Korea Open.

Rungrawee went on television to say the South Korean hit her in the face and stomach only to withdraw the claims and apologise after a public backlash when the experienced Choi offered to quit his role.

Thai Taekwondo Association president Pimol Srivikorn, whose organisation investigated the matter, said the saga had effected all those involved in the sport at home and that Panipak's victory was a timely boost.

"It's a huge relief for me that she won," Pimol was quoted as saying by The Nation newspaper on Tuesday.

"She's one of our medal hopefuls at the upcoming Asian Games as well. More importantly, it helped boost the team's morale after the well-publicised incident."

Pimol was confident Panipak, who gave a warm embrace to Choi after victory, could continue her success.

"She's only 17 so she has plenty of time to get better," he said. (Writing by Patrick Johnston in Singapore; Editing by John O'Brien)