Muay Thai’s Olympic quest slowed by safety concerns
The ancient combat sport of Muay Thai has set its sights on Olympic glory, but a recent death has highlighted safety concerns that could slow its path to a Games debut.
Muay Thai allows some moves that are banned in other forms of kickboxing, such as elbow and knee strikes, and fighters wear little safety gear.
The sport secured Olympic recognition in 2021 — but whether the Games will ever host a Muay Thai event depends on efforts to make the fights safer and more inclusive.
Stephan Fox, secretary general of the International Federation of Muay Thai Associations (IFMA), insists it is “a very safe sport” with rules in place to ensure fighters are fairly matched.
“In Muay Thai we have the same weight, same skills (…) At the end of the day, accidents happen in any sport,” he said.
He acknowledged that bouts organized privately in rural areas of Thailand outside the supervision of the governing body are harder to police.
At one bout held in July in central Thailand’s Pathum Thani, an elbow strike put former South East Asian Games silver medallist Panphet Phadungchai into a coma, and a week later the 25-year-old died.
Muay Thai — known as the “art of eight limbs” for the different ways opponents can strike each other with knees, fists, kicks, and elbows — is Thailand’s de facto national sport and is a source of immense pride.
Since the July death, the Thai authorities have increased their efforts to enforce more rules and inspections in a sport that is steeped in centuries of tradition.
Bids to make the sport more inclusive saw women fighters go toe-to-toe last year for the first time at the Lumpinee stadium in Bangkok, Muay Thai’s spiritual home, run by the army since it opened in 1956.
Providing wounded fighters with medical attention is also becoming more of a priority.
At a recent seven-fight bill at the stadium, army doctor Phongcharoen Ungkharjornkul, 31, took his place at the edge of the ring alongside five nurses, with an ambulance on standby outside.
“Muay Thai is a violent sport. It can cause head injuries, concussions, internal bleeding,” he told AFP.
“If boxers are not treated quickly, they can die.”
Argentinian fighter Federico Vernengo was soon brought in by wheelchair, blood pouring down his face after collapsing in the first round of his fight.
“When I was hit in the face, I saw my mother… It was crazy,” he said after receiving five stitches.
But while immediate care is on hand, follow-up treatment — and enforcement of rest periods in cases of head injuries — is not always so thorough.
Gaps between fights are often cut short to allow fighters and promoters to earn more money.
The sport’s authorities are also looking to clamp down on the involvement of children in bouts.
Regular paid fights have long been one route out of poverty for children from rural Thailand, but the death of a 13-year-old in a bout in 2018 caused outrage in the kingdom.
Youngsters can earn hundreds of dollars a fight from promoters and gamblers, but the bouts often take place outside and regulatory framework and without protective equipment.
Fox said the IFMA is working “to ensure that there are no more child fights.”
“This is one of our concerns,” he said.
The push for better standards comes as the sport seeks to progress along the path to the Olympic Games.
Last year the International Olympic Committee (IOC) formally recognized the IFMA, which has nearly 150 member countries.
It was an important milestone, but Fox said the sport had work to do on equality, youth development, governance and other areas.
“Everybody dreams of the Olympics,” he said.
“Hopefully one day, the dream will become true for the next generation. For now, one step at a time.”
But there is resistance from traditionalists such as trainer Apiprat Lertrakcheewakul, who says stricter safety requirements will dilute the “character” of the sport.
“If (fighters) need to wear headguards or shin-guards, it won’t be Muay Thai anymore, it will be boxing,” he said.
He also defended the young age at which many Thai fighters begin training — the youngest in his gym is seven years old.
“Otherwise there is no way to hold up against foreign boxers. You have to stay number one, because it’s the national sport.”
For Anthony Durand, the Frenchman who delivered the fatal blow to Panphet, the dream is over — after 28 bouts he has quit the sport for good.
“Since (the fight) my life has not been the same,” Durand told AFP.
“My days are empty,” he said. “It didn’t bother me, the risks, until I understood that death was part of it.”
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